Saturday, 19 November 2011
Book Review: "Mischief" by Will McIlroy
"An MI-5 officer and master German spy hunt each other in a tale of espionage, intrigue and betrayal set during the start of World War II and the London Blitz. Similar societal outcasts, one seeks redemption and the other retribution in a duel of strength and will against acumen and guile which weaves science, theater and early BBC television around real events. At stake, disclosure of illegal aid agreements between Churchill and FDR which threaten America's entry into the war and possession of a new device which revolutionizes radar and shifts the strategic balance of the war.
Both men know what they must do. But within MI-5 nothing is secret, nothing sacred. If man's chief end is to amuse the Divinity, how else than by mischief?"
Will McIlroy told me that "Mischief" was written "to fulfill a lifelong urge to merge a writer's instinct with a love of history" and from the opening sequence of the Royal Oak disaster through personal documents sent between Churchill and Roosevelt, to the Blitz and the final plan to move technology to the United States, this love of history shines through. I have little interest in fiction centred around World War 2 as I tend to find few "new" angles on the subject, but McIlroy's book rendered some of the main events around the "Phony War" and "The Blitz" interesting and engaging. Through his accessible style in writing about the period I felt that I learned a great deal and these passages were the most engaging and interesting in the novel.
The focal point of the narrative lies in the struggle between the MI5 agent Kast and the enemy Spy. I felt that there were some clever nuances to their battle, and antagonist and protagonist were true to the books' themes of duality and duplicity. The British Spy, Richard Kast, is a half-German who spent a great deal of time undercover in Oswald Mosley's black shirts. The enemy Spy is an Englishman, a Londoner born and bred who spent his life on and behind the stage. These salient character traits are typical of the work: people aren't quite what they seem, they don't act in the way the reader, or other characters expect them to, and in a world beset with shifting lines of allegiance these two characters alone are honest to their causes. I felt that the work would have benefited from showing more of the workings of the Spy: he was more engaging and better drawn than Kast, and their conflict would have felt more equal and tense if McIlroy had portrayed more than the occasional teasers of his existence.
The secondary characters are a movable feast of morality. There was little to distinguish Biddles and Woodley, the two MI5 section chiefs who were more interested in political one-upmanship than working together to win the war. This type of destructive relationship is typical of the characters: rather than working together to defeat a common enemy, characters are caught up in petty feuds and use others as pawns in the battle.
The overriding theme of the book is that the characters cannot trust anybody around them, even those on their own side. Kast can trust neither Woodley nor Biddles, the Spy can't trust Alistair, Johanna can't trust Hermida and no one can trust Llewellyn.
I felt that the best drawn characters were the Spy and Llewellyn, both of whom were under-used. The strong portrayal of Vicars and his wife made their section of the book honest, reflective and gently effective. At times I felt the other characters needed a little differentiation from each other and their dialogue felt overly formal even in the most heated situations which made it difficult to empathise with them as separate personalities.
Overall I felt the book was at its strongest and most confident when exploring historical events along with their causes and implications, and weaving the fictional characters into the incidents. The stand-alone narrative would benefit from a tighter edit to sharpen the dialogue and increase the narrative tension. There were a few anachronisms with British life, such as the clock "clue" in the Watchmaker's house (where the hands are stopped at 10:14, supposedly signifying the date as 14th October, which is not how the British express a numerical date) and the odd sentence structure utilised by the Londoners grated as it rests on a misconceived cliche about British speech patterns.
I enjoyed McIlroy's afterword, which put the story into its historical context and summarised the key factual events upon which the narrative is based. McIlroy then states: "History well told is never simple. My intent is for the novel to accurately portray the complicated social, political, military and economic conditions of 1939-1940 and the fervent if often misguided emotions on both sides. The war was an awful necessity and its impact on millions an awful reality."
While I felt that the book was hampered by weaker secondary characters and a heavy narrative, overall I would say that McIlroy succeeded in his intentions and has drawn a vivid and realistic picture of life during the period. I was impressed at the depth of the research and the accessible style of its depiction.