One of the pleasures of Alan Judd’s books is their sheer variety. His work includes biographies of Ford Madox Ford and Sir Mansfield Cummings, the first head of what became MI6, as well as nine novels, many of which have little in common with each other apart from unflashy but elegant prose. The Devil’s Own Work, for example, is a brilliant novella, almost a fable, that explores the fatal temptation of a novelist and the relationship between art and success. Another, The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, shows us both the Third Reich and the elderly Kaiser Wilhelm in a wholly unexpected light.
Three of Judd’s novels, however, have both a protagonist and certain themes in common. Charles Thoroughgood, whose career has similarities with his creator’s, is an Oxford graduate, army officer, intelligence officer and author. He appears in Judd’s first novel, A Breed of Heroes, published in 1981, shortlisted for the Booker Prize and filmed by the BBC; it has now been reissued (Simon & Schuster, £7.99).
At this point he is a second lieutenant serving in a battalion of the Army Assault Commandos and posted to Northern Ireland. The story is simply an account of a four-month tour of duty in Armagh and Belfast. In the process, Charles changes. Increasingly he acquires a sort of moral detachment that leads him to actions he would not previously have considered and, finally, to his decision to leave the army.
The novel’s strength is its simplicity. It’s a young man’s book, full of recent and partly digested experience, and none the worse for that. We see the Troubles solely through Charles’s eyes. Judd does not sanitise or simplify his subject; nor does he make facile judgments. But he does leave his readers with a considerable respect for the army’s professionalism and an understanding of the difficult job it was obliged to do.
After a gap of 20 years, Charles Thoroughgood returned in Legacy (2001; also reissued by Simon & Schuster, £7.99), which was billed as the first of an espionage trilogy. The story is set around 1980. Having left the army, Charles has joined MI6 and is undergoing training as an agent. He is summoned to play a more active role when his employers discover that Charles was at Oxford with a KGB officer, Koslove, now been posted to London and having an affair with a superior prostitute. Charles’s job is to offer Koslove the chance of coming over.
But the matter soon develops into something far more disturbing that forces Charles to delve into his own past in pursuit of a secret that threatens both his own certainties and Britain’s security.
Legacy is more considered and more ambitious than its predecessor. It deals more obviously with big themes, notably patriotism and the father-son relationship, both literal and metaphorical. The novel isn’t really a thriller, though it uses the trappings of one and to some extent sets up the same expectations in the reader. Charles has changed since A Breed of Heroes but he remains a detached, seemingly self-reliant figure. He’s not always easy to sympathise with.
Charles now returns in Uncommon Enemy, which is set more or less in the present. He has retired from MI6, which has become part of the Single Intelligence Agency, a combined intelligence service blighted by managerial bloat, careerism and health-and-safety legislation. He is called back to the service by his former boss to find out what has happened to an agent known as Gladiator, whom Charles recruited and who has become a valued source of intelligence about Islamic terrorists. But Charles’s return is not universally popular — at the start of the novel, he’s in a police cell waiting to be charged with the Official Secrets Act.
In essence, the plot is similar to that of Legacy. Once again it deals with the consequences of Charles’s Oxford friendships. Once again he is forced to reassess what has made him the man he has become. It has to be said that the story depends on a perfectly whopping coincidence that may not be to everyone’s taste.
Judd uses the genre machinery of the spy thriller with a certain disdain for the moving parts. It’s a weakness of both this novel and Legacy. But it needs to be balanced against the two great strengths of the books. The first of these is the atmosphere of authenticity that Judd creates. Few readers will know whether or not the intelligence services were or are really quite as he describes them. But the procedures, personnel and locations of the fictional versions certainly create a fascinating and convincing impression.
The second strength is the perspective that the three books, taken together, provide on the unfashionable notion of patriotism. Charles Thoroughgood’s patriotism is a very British thing — bred in the bone but shaped with the intellect; it tends to be articulated with actions not words; and it’s as tough as old boots. Judd reminds us why we need it.