The Company of Strangers

I was looking for a serious spy novel – I got a serious spy novel. There’s nothing light about this book. I read one of Wilson’s novels before I started Booktakes and I recall thinking it was really cool. Well, this one is even better. In fact, it’s the best book I’ve read so far this year.

It starts out in Hitler’s bunker in the middle of the war but quickly transitions to Lisbon, Portugal during the summer of 1944. Lisbon was interesting during this time because it was a neutral city, so delegates and spies from the Axis and the Allies coexisted. That’s where double agent Karl Voss, German spy working for the Brits, ends up after his brother gets killed in Stalingrad and his dad shoots himself. It’s also where Voss meets English spy Andrea Aspinall.

The Third Reich was in a weakened state after D-Day and they incurred heavy losses on the Russian Front. A faction of the German establishment, including Voss, wanted to assassinate Hitler, sabotage German efforts to build a bomb, and smooth relations with the US and GB so that a conditional surrender could be negotiated. The meat of the book depicts a few furious weeks in Lisbon where Karl and Andrea navigate the landscape of spies and double agents from the Third Reich, the US, GB, and Russia in an effort to figure out who’s buying and selling secrets to build the bomb.

** PLOT KILLERS START HERE **

It culminates with the failed attempt by Claus von Stauffenberg to kill Hitler, depicted in the movie Valkyrie, resulting in Voss being rounded up with all of the other traitors and sent back to Germany for interrogation. But we are still only two thirds through the book, yet Voss has had time to save Andrea’s life, fall in love with her, and unknowingly conceive a child with her.

Fast forward twenty plus to years to 1968. Andrea thinks Voss died in 1944 (he didn’t, but the reader does not know that). She’s back in London because her mother is on the brink of death. Her marriage, to a Portuguese military man, is on the rocks because he’s embroiled in another military exercise in Africa which she opposes. She hasn’t told anyone about the real father of her son, who is in Africa fighting along side her husband.

It sounds kind of messy, but it get’s messier. In another furious few weeks, Andrea’s mom dies of cancer, her son gets killed in Africa, and her husband kills himself as a result. She tries to get her life back on track by working in her field at Cambridge, but gets entangled in a dysfunctional relationship with a math professor, who is also connected to the Communist party, which has a special place in her heart because it was the only viable deterrent to fascism in Portugal. Was that a run-on sentence?

Eventually, she rejoins the Company, the British Secret Service, to spy for the communists.

Let me digress into a discussion about spy novels. I think of spy novels as a very specific genre, much different from international intrigue (ie…Robert Ludlum) or thrillers (ie…Dan Brown). The spy novel is a thoughtful, complicated, often dark, character study, the best example of which is probably John Le Carre. I didn’t like spy novels growing up. I can remember struggling through a Le Carre novel as a kid, all the while wishing I was reading something by Ludlum. I haven’t read anything by Le Carre since, but I liked this Wilson book so much that I’m inspired to do so.

Back to the story. In Andrea’s second stint as an agent, she eventually runs into Voss during an operation in Cold War East Berlin. It’s an emotional few scenes. They save each other’s lives and diverge for another twenty years.

They eventually meet in their 70’s I guess, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She moves to the country in a small house in a quaint town and one day he shows up. He’s writing a book that’s going to blow the lid off the British Secret Service. They take a quick trip down memory lane back to Lisbon, where Andrea gives Voss a box of family memorabilia that she salvaged from his apartment when he was busted. It felt like loose ends were tied up. I had some warm fuzzy feelings. I was premature.

When they get back home, Andrea gets strangled by her next door neighbor, who I assume was a British agent trying to make sure Voss didn’t publish his secrets. That ending friggin’ rocked. Great book. Classic spy novel.