The work of British novelist William Boyd stands at the opposite end of the espionage spectrum from the ordnance porn of Tom Clancy and his clones. Boyd is an actual writer who happens to traffic in spy stories. His new novel, Restless (Bloomsbury, 325 pp., $24.95), has the literate, world-weary tone of such genre milestones from the 1960s as John LeCarré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Adam Hall’s first Quiller novel.
Restless is a great title for a tale about spies, who just never relax, not even after decades of hiding. Despite her changed name and appearance, Sally Gilmartin has been looking over her shoulder since the early days of World War II, when she was Eve Dalton—and before, when she was Eva Delectorskaya. Boyd tops most of his male competitors in several ways, and not least is his ability to portray convincing female characters. His new book interweaves the lives of Eva and her daughter Ruth Gilmartin, alternating between the years leading up to World War II and the summer of 1976.
Afraid that her identity has been discovered, Eva finally reveals to Ruth that she was lured into the British secret service when her brother was killed because of his clandestine activities. Boyd likes to play games. Ruth Gilmartin narrates her own story in the 1970s, yet the wily third-person account of her mother in the 1940s was supposedly written as a history for her daughter. Although the conventions of the genre make us expect subplots to join the main story, Boyd subverts stereotypes and keeps us looking in the wrong direction.
The author has found wonderful historical background for this book: the clandestine operations of British agents on American soil in 1939, manipulating—and at times manufacturing—public opinion toward supporting the British war effort. Yes, this really happened. While forging news stories, writes Boyd, “Eva felt a small sense of power and pride as she contemplated the future life of her falsehood—thinking of herself as a tiny spider at the centre of her spreading, complex web of innuendo, half-truth and invention.”
Unlike James Bond, Boyd’s characters never play baccarat or foil a supervillain. There is no nastier job than spying, and Boyd knows how to wring every plot twist and character surprise out of this duplicitous profession. Author of more than a dozen books, including the novel A Good Man in Africa, Boyd does not explore new stylistic territory in Restless. But like a chess master, he plays a fine game with the old familiar pieces. --Michael Sims