Ten months into the business of being a published author, and one of its greatest pleasures – free books – has yet to pall. I still get a childish thrill when a padded envelope thuds onto the doormat and I tear it open to see what the Proof Fairy has brought. Sometimes it’s a complete surprise – an author and book I’ve never heard of, such as Niklas Natt och Dag’s excellent but gruesome ‘The Wolf and the Watchman’, a historical thriller set in eighteenth century Sweden. On other occasions I’ve heard of something on the grapevine and effectively begged for it; I feel no shame for tweeting that I just had to read Adrian McKinty’s game-changing ‘The Chain’ (it matches the pre-publication hype).
But perhaps my greatest pleasure has been a book I vaguely knew was in the ether, but had no expectation of getting my hands on. ‘Witchfinder’, by Andrew Williams, is a historical thriller set amidst the 1960s mole-hunts in MI5 and MI6. I’d been looking forward to it because I’ve enjoyed all Williams’s previous novels, and felt he handled a wide range of historical backdrops with skill and judgement. The judgement issue matters – partly because I don’t like it when authors distort history to make a point, but mostly because the mole-hunts hit a little close to home.
My grandfather was an MI6 officer tasked with investigating Kim Philby in the early 1950s. His verdict – that Philby was a Soviet spy – damaged his career, as a service unwilling to accept the truth made life difficult for the truth-tellers. In the 1960s he found himself back on the counter-intelligence beat, where he worked with Peter Wright, an MI5 officer convinced that the UK had been suborned by the most elaborate and wide-ranging Communist conspiracies. I remember talking to my grandfather about Wright at the time of the so-called ‘Spycatcher’ affair in the 1980s. (It was the title of Wright’s mad, bitter memoir, written from retirement in Australia; the Thatcher government’s attempt to kill it turned it into a bestseller.) He said Wright was a crackpot who had done incalculable damage to both intelligence services. Given this family history, I was curious to see what Williams would do with Wright and the ripples that he caused.
Williams has written a cracking spy novel. ‘Witchfinder’’s hero is the MI6 officer leading the mole-hunt (a role probably fairly close to the one my grandfather played). Yet he quickly finds himself in a bureaucratic viper’s pit. How can he do his job when the prejudices of nutters like Wright and the cowardice of his bosses will damage the service that he loves? Can the US’s untouchable spy-hunters – sponsors of his own campaign – be kept at bay? And can he protect old, pre-service friendships?
Much of the pleasure of ‘Witchfinder’ is Williams’s skill. Most of the characters are real, but Williams hasn’t taken liberties with them; his portrayal of historical figures like Wright and CIA Deputy Director JJ Angleton manages to tread a human middle ground between the blinkered characterisations of left and right. (I met a couple of the characters decades ago; it is very strange to have them spout dialogue in a novel!) And his rendering of the worlds his characters move through – the bureaucracies, the relationships, even the buildings – rings wholly true. Above all, Williams manages to keep us guessing about exactly which game his hero might be playing. If a good spy novel needs anything, it’s uncertainty, a hall of mirrors; and ‘Witchfinder’ delivers it in spades. Great stuff.