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Review: Paris Spring, by James Naughtie
Overlook, 2016. 320 pp. $27

Will Flemyng, who works undercover for the British Embassy in Paris, is accosted on the métro by an East German agent named Kristof. At first, Will wonders whether Kristof is willing to trade information or change sides, and since it’s April 1968, and talk of democracy in Prague has the Soviet bloc on edge, Kristof’s sudden appearance offers possibilities.

Or does it? A subsequent rendezvous turns testy when Kristof threatens to expose Will’s brother, Abel, who spies for the United States, as a traitor. Will refuses to believe him or be bullied. But he also keeps his own counsel, because this is family, and the Flemyngs are close, matter of state or no. So Will doesn’t tell his boss, Freddy Craven, all he should, and there too lie emotional ties. Freddy’s like a father to Will, an older man in ill health who’s shown him the ropes of tradecraft, and for whom Will would risk anything.

Meanwhile, the student population has fomented rebellion, and the streets are boiling. The embassy is expected to watch these events carefully, and in return, with so much focus on Paris, any diplomatic mistake will quickly become public knowledge. Freddy, like any sensitive soul, realizes something’s up with Will, but he doesn’t know what. A love affair that ended a few months before? The tensions of the job? But before that question can be resolved, Grace Quincy, a world-famous journalist who could pry secrets from a clam without having to open it, blows into Paris. Will, knowing that Grace is trouble and that her flirtatious attentions mean she’s digging for information, nevertheless invites her over. But before that happens, she’s murdered at Père-Lachaise cemetery, of all places, and the police quickly learn that Will’s name is on her dance card. It’s obvious that one side or other had her killed, for reasons of espionage, but who, and why?

Pierre_Mendès_France, the Socialist politician who had helped extricate France from Vietnam, was willing to form a coalition government in May 1968 and listen to the student demands. But the Gaullists increased their power in the next election (courtesy Dutch National Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

Naughtie excels at portraying Paris under siege and the student protests:

. . .the canteen in the student building was filled with a rolling crowd and had the air of a cavernous bar in the early hours, a dance hall with the lights down. There was a group in one corner listening to a guitar, some of them flat out on the floor, and across the room an argument was threatening to turn into a struggle. Somebody ran shouting from the room. At least five people were handing out newspapers and campaign sheets at the door, one of them wearing a Mao cap, the others in black.…Someone was cooking oil. A few on the floor looked as if they’d slept there for days and the place looked like a school gymnasium on a wet afternoon. They’d rigged up an urn to boil water for coffee, and people were pulling stale bread rolls from a cardboard box. Someone had brought in a cat, which sat on top of the jukebox with its tail rigid in the air and its eyes wide.

But good as that is, it’s just the vivid background. The real story involves two families. First, it’s the Flemyngs, and how the brothers balance their feelings and ties against the secrecy demanded by their work, which affects a third, older brother, Mungo. Until reading Paris Spring, I didn’t know I wanted an older brother named Mungo, but it helps that this one is supportive, caring, and paternal, without being pushy or controlling, the family mediator. Mungo comes to know Freddy as well, so there’s plenty of warmth to go around in this coldest of cold-blooded professions.

The other family consists of Will’s allies, foremost among them Freddy, of course, but also others encountered during his travails over Kristof. Rivalries exist, to be sure, but even as temporary friends, they stick together. They know better than anyone else what the power of secrets can do, especially those that may or may not exist, except in rumor. As Freddy tells Mungo, who’s a historian, “You warn your students of the fog of war. Well, I know it to be real. I breathe the fumes.”

Naughtie’s grasp of spydom as a brethren echoes John le Carré, and the same could be said of his focus on characterization. Paris Spring fails to emulate the master in that it resolves with a couple turns that may be too neat; another neatness is how indulgent Freddy is with Will, which strains credulity at times. Nevertheless, Paris Spring is an excellent thriller, elegant in the way le Carré’s are — as few moving narrative parts as possible, a focus on motive instead, and characters who believe in what they’re doing. Bravo.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.