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Monroe, Aly - 'Washington Shadow'
Hardback: 336 pages (Nov. 2009) Publisher: John Murray ISBN: 1848540345

It is September 1945, the war is over but the victorious British are financially exhausted by their wartime efforts. President Trueman has suddenly halted lend lease, and John Maynard Keynes is on his way to Washington sent by the recently elected Labour government of Mr Attlee to negotiate a large loan to help the old country survive the next few years.

Peter Cotton, the agent author Aly Monroe introduced us to in THE MAZE OF CADIZ, is sent to the embassy with a fairly vague mission, to act as an "academic sort of soldier, a brave economist". Cotton discovers that the Americans in segregated Washington believe in freedom and self-determination for Africans and the rest of the British Empire, but not yet for their own African-Americans. Working under the direction of Geoffrey Ayrtoun, whose wife Penelope has a liking for alcohol and young officers, Cotton meets with various absorbing people and sharpens his burgeoning diplomatic skills. He is asked to meet with the contrary Dr G S Aforey, from Howard University, and use his charm to persuade him to attend or comment on the Pan African Congress in Manchester as a counterweight to the mostly Marxist influenced leaders who are attending.

On his social roundabout Cotton intrigues the wealthy philanthropic Mrs Duquesne, discusses Lermontov and Tolstoy with his Soviet opposite number who may or may not be Colonel Aleksandr Slonim, and meets a very attractive young woman Katherine Ward, who works for Interim Research and Analysis at the State Department. Accompanying Bobbie Mullins, a former footman, under-butler and slaughter houseman, who is now a bodyguard-fixer for the embassy, Cotton clears up some awkward situations, meeting a suitably named tough patrolman, and developing a distinct dislike for the FBI along the way.

The American wartime intelligence agency the OSS is about to be wound up and there is an internal struggle to replace it, as well as the continuing battle with the Soviets, their many sympathizers and active agents. Monroe's compelling narrative telling of meetings at the Lincoln Memorial, embassy functions, weekend retreats in the Catoctin Mountains, as well as FBI and Soviet surveillance, racks up the tension towards an inevitable tragic climax.

Monroe throws in various red herrings and takes the reader down a few dead ends but draws you into the world she has created. The only certainty in the plot is that Britain is financially bust, dependent on the largesse of her wartime ally, and this is brought home to the reader as Cotton eats his way through meals that would only be a distant mirage to the rationed kitchens of post war England.

WASHINGTON SHADOW is a far superior novel to the first book in the Peter Cotton series. It has intelligent dialogue, considerable tension, a love story, and the credible period attitudes of the characters produce a tense atmosphere that simply makes you want to keep turning the pages to discover what happens next.

Peter Cotton is still a bit of an enigma who usually reacts to events rather than initiates them, and I am surpised that this intelligence agent posted to Washington had never heard of Howard University [a college founded in 1867], or the Battle of Kursk in 1943. But perhaps this is part of an act to deceive his American contacts, or is it Aly Monroe's comment in a subtle way about British Intelligence officers, whose English public school educations made them feel superior, but failed to unmask MacLean, Kim Philby and Guy Burgess as Soviet agents.

WASHINGTON SHADOW has a suitably evocative period atmosphere, some really imaginative character portraits, and a well-researched plot which successfully weaves real life events into the fictional story making it such an interesting read that I am looking forward to the next chapter in Peter Cotton's career.

Norman Price, England
December 2009

Norman blogs at Crime Scraps.

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 12/05/2013 09:09