However, the goods are plundered and what also goes missing is the super-secret Norden bombsight, an advanced military hardware developed by Americans and which the Germans are after.
Special intelligence agent Paul Duggan is called in to investigate.
He is sent to Lisbon which is replete with spies and smugglers.
What follows is cloak and dagger politics with Duggan and Irish representatives negotiating with German and American diplomats and shady characters who are vying in a fraught contest to locate and seize the prized bombsight.
The book is strong on historical detail and the war-time geography of the cities of Dublin and Lisbon is atmospherically evoked.
However, sometimes the details weigh heavily on the narrative such as in the many references to brand names of cigarettes like Gold Flake, Sweet Afton, Lucky Strike and Pall Mall which keep popping up like punctuation marks to slow down the pace.
One wished for more of the little humour that the book possesses and which Joyce shows his talent to display as when a Polish representative got off the mailboat and asked the taxi driver to take him to Iveagh House.
The driver took him to the Iveagh Hostel instead “which was probably enough”, Duggan’s superior, commandment McClure exclaims, “for a representative of a homeless government”.
When he extricates himself from digressions and descriptive excesses and overlong dialogues, Joyce is capable of getting to the point quickly with short, insightful sentences such as
“Lisbon is now the crossroads of the world and anything can be bought”.
Some of his best writing surround the ships.
When the Lisbon-bound ship is pulling out from Dublin, clear word pictures are conjured up: “there were ships in the port all of them small, and the lines of cranes on the quay stood idle”.
In Lisbon itself we feel we are there as he describes the wooden memorial to the Portuguese explorers facing the water “like the prow of an enormous ship”.
However, we could have done with more of the suspenseful Hitchcock-like footsteps behind Duggan as he traverses the back streets of the Portuguese capital.
Back in Dublin the cutaway description and circumstances of the burnt-out shell of informant Benny Reilly’s lock-up garage in North Lotts heightens the intrigue.
Tension mounts in the latter half of the novel with the possibility of a U-boat torpedo threat or more closely of a bomb exploding in a suitcase on the return ship from Lisbon, and with Duggan scanning for bobbing mines.
The writing is original and concise here: ‘The thumping of the engine felt like their own heartbeats’ and the sea had ‘the colour and texture of freshly-poured concrete’.
But the novel overall is marred by too much historical detail and circumlocution, and there is little passion particularly as regards the supposed love of Duggan’s life, Gerda Meier, an Austrian Jew who escaped to America and was working in intelligence.
There are references to long lapses between her letters and Duggan’s, and in 1941 would one not have handwritten a love letter rather than coldly typing it as Duggan did?
To have read one or two of these letters, despite the possibility of their being censored, would have imbued a little emotion perhaps into their dry affair.
And when she is introduced in person near the end of the novel there is no build-up in her character, and one feels it is all happening too late.
- James Lawless’s latest novel is American Doll; www.jameslawless.net