RogerBW's Blog

Skydancer, Geoffrey Archer 31 January 2021

1987 Cold War espionage thriller. The upgrade to Polaris warheads, to get them through a new generation of Soviet defences, is one of the most closely-guarded of British secrets. Then one of the pages is found in a rubbish bin on Parliament Hill…

All right, so this isn't one of my usual genres; the closest I normally get is technothrillers that, to be honest, are often at least as much about the hardware as about the people. But I was asking about fiction writers who'd dealt with the post-WWII Royal Navy (other than John Winton and Patrick Robinson of course), and Archer's name came up. (No relation.) Shadow Hunter is apparently the very Navy one, but being me I started with his first published book.

There's a lot of stereotyping here (the one lesbian is an enemy agent, all CND members are at best unwitting tools of the Russians) but many of the people work as people; they're flawed and often unpleasant, but each one acts in a way that the reader can tell is consistent with their personality. There are the usual games of who's-the-mole, and some unfortunate failures of procedure which might be forgivable in amateurs but really aren't in professionals, but altogether this works surprisingly well, not raising my implausibility-hackles the way e.g. Mark Dawson did. (If the choice in lead characters is between perfect-at-everything and flawed-and-unpleasant but basically human, I will, reluctantly, take the latter.)

What also works well is the host of nasty little bits of detail about just how one compromises a source. It's broad-strokes stuff, but it shows how it can happen and even leaves one with a little bit of sympathy for the victim. That's a lot better than the pulp-era reliance on "some hypnotic drug untraceable by forensic tests", at which I nearly groaned aloud.

Alas, I could have done with another chapter: the espionage plot is wrapped up all right, but there are some hanging personal considerations that could really have done with being concluded rather than just abandoned. Still, surprisingly good, though of course one has to get into the mindset of the time.

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See also:
1000 Yards, Mark Dawson

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