SPIES AND MOLES: New Spy Fiction from Matthew Richardson and Paul Vidich
It has been a long wait for Matthew Richardson’s The Insider (Penguin, November 2021). When his first book, My Name Is Nobody, came out in 2017 I said in a review, that it was a “compelling debut … (and) a clever and gripping spy thriller”. I keenly awaited a second book, and almost gave up hope of one, before learning that a follow-up novel was released in the United Kingdom late last year. I finally got my hands on a copy early this year and quickly ploughed through it.
Solomon Vine, the central character in My Name Is Nobody, returns from spying limbo in The Insider, and is given an unenviable task. A Russian defector has been found brutally murdered in a London hotel. Only four people in the world knew he had been turned by British Intelligence and they just happen to be the four most important and powerful figures in Whitehall. The conclusion is that one of them is a mole, and it is up to Vine to find out which one.
It is a classic ‘mole hunt’ set-up, and Richardson handles it with aplomb. The story moves at a good pace as Vine interviews each of the four suspects and reveals aspects of their past, which could mean they are the mole. Further killings ensue and Vine desperately tries to identify the mole before it is too late. The toing and froing is well done, and Richardson creates a credible picture of four people with secrets and opportunities for betrayal. The tension escalates over the final chapters and the book builds to an exciting and violent conclusion.
I really enjoyed The Insider. The pacing was good, the plotting was clever and Richardson’s background as a speechwriter in Westminster adds good sense of credibility to the setting and the behaviors of the various players. I had some reservations about the basic set-up: that only four people knew about the defector over the years and that they were still in similar roles, but this was easily overlooked as the story unfolded. The ending did not come as a huge surprise, but Richardson handles it very well, and I liked how a seemingly small, inconsequential, repeated detail becomes so important in the outcome.
In all, this is a really good spy novel that deserves greater attention. Hopefully, we will not have to wait so long for Richardson’s next novel
Four stars out of five!
The Insider was released in the United Kingdom in late November 2021 and will be released in paperback in Australia in March 2022.
Paul Vidich has steadily built up his reputation over recent years as a leading writer of intelligent espionage fiction. From his impressive debut, The Honorable Man (2016), to last year’s highly acclaimed The Mercenary (2021), he has grown in ability and has clearly shown that he is capable of mixing it with the current big names of the genre.
With his latest book, The Matchmaker (Pegasus, 1 February 2022), Vidich goes back to 1989 and the chaotic days surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall, and introduces us to an intriguing female character who leads the narration for most of the book.
As protests across East Germany threaten the Iron Curtain, Anne Simpson, an American who works as a translator at the Joint Operations Refugee Committee, thinks she is in a normal marriage with a charming German piano tuner. But then her husband disappears, and the CIA and Western German intelligence arrive at her door. Suddenly it seems that nothing about her marriage is normal.
Anne had apparently been targeted by the Matchmaker, a high level East German counterintelligence officer who runs a network of Stasi agents. These agents are his “Romeos”, who marry vulnerable women in West Berlin to provide them with cover as they report back to the Matchmaker. Anne’s husband was one of them and now he has disappeared, presumably dead. The CIA are desperate to find the Matchmaker because of his close ties to the KGB. They also believe he can establish the truth about a high-ranking Soviet defector. They need Anne because she’s the only person who has seen his face – from a photograph that her husband mistakenly left out in his office – and she is the CIA’s best chance to identify him before the Matchmaker escapes to Moscow. Time is running out as the Berlin Wall falls and chaos engulfs East Germany.
The Matchmaker is an intelligent, atmospheric, richly written and quietly gripping spy novel. Vidich steadily builds up his plot and adds layers of complexity and deception as the story progresses. The main characters, especially Anne, are well crafted and believable, and it is easy to become caught up in their plights. The Matchmaker is largely a character driven story, rather than an action thriller, but there are still moments of great suspense and tension, including a marvellous set-piece during the initial breaching of the Wall by panicking East Berliners, and the dark conclusion.
It is also the small details which make The Matchmaker so enjoyable. The carefully nuanced minor characters, the subtle references to earlier novels by Vidich, the intriguing reason behind the CIA’s real interest in the Matchmaker and believable descriptions of Berlin on the edge of change. Vidich also deals sensitively with real moral issues around spying and there is a depth to his themes. In all, it is a very impressive achievement.
It is still very early in the year, but I think that The Matchmaker will end up being one of the best spy novels of 2022.
Four and half stars out of five!
The Matchmaker was released in the United Kingdom and the United States on 1 February 2022. There does not seem to be a local release in Australia until later in February. Thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for a copy of the book to review.