A post Cold-War spy drama

A Spy’s Life by Henry Porter

Many moons ago I read Henry Porter’s first novel Rememberance Day (2000) which was a fast-moving spy thriller and I enjoyed it very much indeed. Finally, years later, I’ve read his second – another standalone spy-thriller about an ex-spy who finds out that you can never truly leave your former life behind.

British ex-spook Robert Harland now works at the United Nations in New York. Returning from a trip to DC in a plane full of colleagues including Alan Griswald whom he’d known for years – when the plane inexplicably crashes into the Hudson as it was coming in to land. Harland is the only survivor. Later, he talks to the crash investigators, then has another call from his old boss …

Vigo! What the hell did he want? He hadn’t seen Vigo for at least a decade. On the day he left MI6 for good in 1990, Vigo had come to him and offered a limp hand of regret together with the assurance that their masters would take Harland back if he found he could not make a go of it on the outside. They both knew this was impossible.

Convinced by Vigo’s interest it wasn’t an accident, Harland pledges to Griswald’s widow that he’ll find out what happened, and it soon appears that Griswald was onto something and that there could be a connection to some coded messages which are being broadcast on hijacked radio frequencies – but you need both parts of the code. When Harland is contacted by Tomas Rath, a young man, who claims to be his son and turns out to be involved too – Harland is completely drawn in – raking up his past as a spy in Europe, his doomed affair with Eastern European agent Eva, his capture and torture –  and it seems that everyone now wants to get him again – dead or alive…

This is a solid, all-action spy thriller – full of twists and turns, and you’re never sure who’s on whose side for a large part of it. Harland leaps back into his former life with abandon, playing all those who want him off against each other until it becomes clear what they want and all the time – the body count increases…

Harland, although obviously a superman physically, is likeable underneath his slightly gruff exterior which tries not to let anyone get close to him again.  His confusion when faced with the possibility of being a father shows a vulnerable side which, let’s face it, we need in our heroes for them to be believable. Walter Vigo, the British top spook is suitably oleaginous, but the character I liked best was Robert’s sister Harriet – who is immensely practical, capable and clever too – she would have made a great agent herself. When Tomas comes to see them in London, she takes Bobby to task after Tomas goes…

“Well, I think you had better get used to him calling you something else. Bobby, he couldn’t be anyone else’s child. He’s a dead ringer for you when you were that age – all gangly and intense. There’s no question about it. He’s yours.”

There was one scene which reminded me very much of George Smiley’s encounter with Karla in Le Carré’s Smiley’s People, although reversed. Harland is younger, fitter and more action-oriented than Le Carré’s leads though, so any similarities are fleeting.

Going from New York to London and Eastern Europe and incorporating the war-crimes and their remnants from the Bosnian War, Porter has found a great post-Cold War setting for his story. It may be 470 pages long, but they raced by and I enjoyed this novel very much. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Spy’s Life by Henry Porter – W&N paperback, 480 pages.

8 thoughts on “A post Cold-War spy drama

  1. litlove says:

    Charles Cumming and Stella Rimington have become my favourite spy authors of late, but I have read Henry Porter in the past. The one I read of his (I believe it was his latest, a very recent one in any case) was a bit over the top and preposterous, but this sounds altogether more like it. I love me a good spy thriller, particularly this time of year.

  2. Steerforth says:

    Henry Porter’s a cut above the average thriller writer and while I really enjoyed this book, I was particularly impressed with ‘Brandenburg’, which was very well-researched. It’s a great shame that he hasn’t published anything for a while.

  3. crimeworm says:

    I was just looking at his books, thanks to your handy Amazon link, and Brandenburg appealed to me the most. I read one of his years ago – Empire State, I think – but like litlove I’m enjoying Charles Cumming – I read and reviewed The Trinity Six a few weeks ago – and Stella Rimington – although I haven’t read her for a bit, I’ve got a couple on the Kindle. I like a good spy thriller too, especially a Cold War one, as there’s so much material there (old fashioned, I know!). Or anything with a Russian connection. Because they can be very ruthless…

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      I think I prefer spy thrillers to general crime thrillers – but there are not so many. It’s great when you find an author you like. Must read more Cumming, plus Brandenburg, and Stella Rimmington. Who else would you recommend?

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