The Man in the Corduroy Suit by James Wolff

I’m delighted to be the penultimate stop on the blogtour for this book, the third standalone spy novel of ‘The Discipline Files’ series by James Wolff. A new author to me, and one I’ll definitely be returning to since reading this novel.

The book begins with a top secret memo, outlining the admission of a retired former vetting officer to MI5 to hospital with suspected poisoning, assumed to be a Russian nerve agent. We immediately ask what did Willa Karlsson do to deserve this fate? Was she a Russian mole who had to be shut up?

Enter Leonard Flood – he of the corduroy suit. An employee of MI5 for seven years now, he has the knack of making people feel uneasy, including his boss Charles Remnant, thirty years older, military – but still not quite at ease alone in a room with Leonard, who has a nickname of the ‘Ratcatcher’ – able to get a confession out of anyone by sheer persistence and his blunt manner. Remnant is recruiting Leonard to his elite cadre of ‘Gatekeepers’, everyone knows they exist but not who they are, the agents who watch the watchers so to speak. Leonard will lead the investigation into Willa Karlsson. Remnant lays it out for him:

‘You are going to find out for us within the next two weeks whether there’s anything at all in Willa Karlsson’s life that has even the slightest stink of Russia.’

The word “mission” is never used: it is too dramatic, too religious, too American. But this is precisely how Leonard feels about the task he s being given. To shine a light into the darkness, to sacrifice himself for a greater cause – he will do whatever it takes. Leonard feels he was created from dust for moments like this.

[…] ‘We want you to stick out those famously pointed elbows and get to the bottom of this, Leonard. If there’s something to be found, find it. If there’s nothing to be found, convince me you have turned over every conceivable stone.’

Leonard sets about his task using every element of the tradecraft that he has learned, applying it to Willa’s life. Her flat is strangely sterile, she lived an unadorned life, but there are a few things to follow up – the small but distinctive selection of books in her bookcase, and the one on her side table; a dry cleaning receipt; evidence of a recent visit to the hairdressers. Leonard poses as her nephew taking care of her flat while she’s in hospital to visit these contacts and more, to build up a picture of her movements. The detail in Wolff’s descriptions as Leonard teases out her life is second to none, I don’t think I’ve ever read such a complete analysis through tradecraft as Leonard does for Willa. He turns over many stones and they do lead somewhere else … to a small hotel in the middle of Norfolk where it appears Willa was a regular visitor. What’s a man to do, but go there himself – but Remnant gives him a sidekick. We meet Franny, a data analyst, who has been working on Willa’s digital footprint, they’re to pose as a couple. Also the minister wants results sooner – they’ve now got just a week. As for how it goes, I couldn’t possibly say more.

Along the way, we’ve been learning about some other MI5 agents that have gone rogue over the years, the trend appears to be accelerating, so MI5 and 6 are getting very worried indeed. Remnant’s reputation is on the line too, as we see from other eyes only memos inserted between the main chapters.

Despite being a novel that places its emphasis on tradecraft, investigative techniques and intrigue in a domestic setting rather than out and out action, (although it has its moments), The Man in the Corduroy Suit is an absolutely compulsive read. Not since I discovered Mick Herron’s wonderful world of disgraced spooks, have I been as totally engrossed in an espionage novel. Wolff’s novel though, owes little to Herron’s Jackson Lamb; Remnant may be a remnant of MI5’s more military past (loved that choice of name), but Leonard Flood is a true original. Despite – or in spite of – his reputation, Leonard is a character that you swiftly grow to love. Having had a hugely varied working life before joining the secret service; having commitment issues in work and life, he never expected to enjoy a job as much as working at MI5, he is a complex man indeed.

Wolff’s bio coyly says he worked for the British government for over ten years, so reading between the lines, I’d wager he’s encountered enough of this world to know a bit on what he’s writing about. I’ve marked Wolff as an author to look out for in future, and got the two previous volumes on order. This spy thriller is refreshingly good – I totally recommend it.

Source: Review Copy – Thank you! A Bitter Lemon Press paperback original, 294 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P).

4 thoughts on “The Man in the Corduroy Suit by James Wolff

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      This one was so good – contemporary yet it did have that classic spy novel feel. I’m very keen to read the previous two books now.

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