The single most terrifying moment of my adult life occurred at 8.55 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday 5 August 2008. I had a written a novel, Typhoon, in which disenfranchised Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province riot against the Han government. By coincidence, a few days before publication, large numbers of Uighurs started doing exactly that, in a curious real-life echo of the book.
James Naughtie had read Typhoon and wanted to get me onto the Today programme to talk about it. It was like receiving a royal summons. But as the minutes ticked down towards the interview, I was transformed into a pitiless, gibbering wreck, so nervous of making a fool of myself on national radio that I was tempted to bolt for the door.
Naughtie could see he had a problem. With practised skill, he eased into the Green Room, coated me in jokes and flattery, then led me into the studio for a conversation that passed in a blur and seemed to go without a hitch.
When it was all over, we talked about spy thrillers. It turned out that Naughtie is an aficionado of the genre and, in particular, a lifelong admirer of the works of John le Carré. Now the veteran broadcaster has written his own thriller, The Madness of July, drawing on nearly 40 years of experience as a journalist on the frontline of politics, diplomacy and espionage.
The protagonist is Will Flemyng who, despite the symbolic weight of his surname, bears scant resemblance to James Bond. Our hero may once have been a spy, but Flemyng is now a minister in the Foreign Office, carrying a secret from his past that will unravel over six sweltering days in the mid-1970s.
Complex and psychologically detailed, The Madness of July is, to all intents and purposes, a homage to the Master. I have seldom come across a novel so redolent of le Carré’s milieu and technique, right down to the appearance of an ormolu clock (one of which, like a Hitchcock cameo, always features in the great man’s books). The names of the characters too might have been dreamed up by the author of A Delicate Truth and Our Kind of Traitor: there’s a Mungo, a Janus, even a Gwilym (Peter Guillam was Smiley’s right-hand man in Tinker, Tailor). Here is Naughtie describing the latter:
He was what he appeared: a blue blood who pulsed with confidence and bonhomie… Half manipulator and half honest broker, oiling the wheels, he was family solicitor to parliamentarians who had to be extricated from an affair or a plot that had backfired; did the deals that had to be done across the floor, behind the arras… Along the way, he saved marriages and broke them, gave a career a blessing or prepared it for the end.
As one might expect of a journalist who has spent his working life engaging with ministers and mandarins, Naughtie also shares le Carré’s fascination with Whitehall. Time and again, particularly in his late fiction, le Carré puts men in rooms and listens to them talk. Naughtie does the same, believing that personality is revealed not by action, but by words. What does a character want? What is he (or she) prepared to concede? It is in the space between words — the things we do not say — that the truth is often revealed.
Plotwise, The Madness of July is a slow-burning puzzle populated by a voluminous cast: ministers, ambassadors, whips and spooks, all of whom gradually disinter the conspiracy at the heart of the story. The body of an American has been found in a cupboard in the House of Commons, a syringe beside the corpse. But did the former CIA man take his own life, or were darker forces at work?
It’s a clever, intelligent story, not so much a thriller as a political novel by someone who knows the territory intimately. Readers who approach the book expecting narrative fireworks and edge-of-the-seat suspense may be disappointed. Le Carré doesn’t really write spy thrillers any more; neither does James Naughtie. Both writers are more interested in human behaviour: in secrets and regret, in ambition and venality.
Naughtie’s female characters aren’t quite as strong as their male equivalents, and he has also caught le Carré’s unhappy habit of finding new and elaborate ways to tell the reader what he already knows: The Madness of July could easily have survived some judicious pruning.
Yet it is an evocative and eloquent novel, not least when the action moves to the author’s native Scotland. There are more books in the series to come. It will be interesting to see what Naughtie does next.