MOSCOW EXILE By John Lawton
John Lawton’s novels are always a highlight of the spy reader’s year and his latest one, Moscow Exile (Grove Press, 4 May 2023), is particularly welcomed.
At the end of his last novel, Hammer To Fall (2020), roguish British agent Joe Holderness (known as Wilderness to many) was left on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall and in uncertain health. Now after a three year break we finally get in Moscow Exile, the fourth book in the series, the opportunity to find out what happened to him, although in typical Lawton fashion we have to wait almost half the book for Joe to make an appearance.
After a teasing opening in 1969, in which Joe fails to appear at the Glienicke Bridge (the so-called Bridge of Spies) for his exchange, Moscow Exile moves back to the early years of World War II and Charlotte (Coky) Churchill, who is married to a confidante of her cousin Winston Churchill, before heading to Washington at the start of the Cold War. Charlotte is now married to a rich and influential mover and shaker in American governmental circles, and is gaining fame in Washington as a hostess of some renown. Also in Washington is Charlie Leigh-Hunt, who has been sent by the British Government to replace Guy Burgess at the Embassy, following the latter’s defection to the Russians. The American intelligence community is livid about Burgess and the other British traitors, and not likely to extend much trust to Charlie, but he persists with his attempts to win the Americans over, while doing some spying of his own. Eventually the various storylines head to Moscow and the patiently waiting Joe.
Moscow Exile is an intricately plotted spy novel, that gracefully winds its way through various machinations and surprises to an unexpected conclusion. Close of reading of the story is necessary, and well rewarded, and fans of the series will benefit from prior knowledge about the various characters and their back stories. There is not a lot of action in the opening stages, but Lawton’s stylish prose and his ability to limn a compelling sense of place and time drags the reader happily along.
Like always, the various historical periods are well evoked, and there is the usual blending of fictional and real life characters. Some of the historical figures are expected, such as Burgess, Maclean and Philby, but others, like H G Wells, are unexpected! The presence of Lawton’s other regular series character, Inspector Frederick Troy and his cronies and family, adds a lot to the story and, not surprisingly, Troy plays a pivotal role in the conclusion. Also adding to the pleasure are Lawton’s sparkling dialogue and the wry reflections on why someone becomes a spy.
My only minor criticism, is that Moscow Exile lacks the stunning climax that has been a feature of the first three books, but this is only a trivial concern, and overall it is another outstanding book by Lawton, and one of my favourite novels of 2023 so far.
There are a mixture of release dates for Moscow Exile. It is released in the United Kingdom on 4 May 2023 with the cover above and on 18 April in the United States with a different cover (below). For some reason it is not released in Australia until July 2023! Thanks to the American publishers and NetGalley for an advanced copy of the book.