COMPARED to the infamous Cambridge five, the search for spies among the dreaming spires of Oxford might seem like poor gruel indeed.
Serpent’s Tail, £14.40
Not, however, for Elizabeth Wilson, who pulled the strings on post-war austerity and treachery in The Girl in Berlin and The Twilight Hours.
If injecting some of the nebulous Cambridge spy underworld into the considerably less sinister Oxford might appear a bit of a stretch, Wilson takes her time in constructing, step by step, a portrait of post-war Britain.
If ever there was a modern thriller writer who invests as much time in cities as characters, it is Wilson, and her economical prose gets under the skin of the quadrangles, cloisters and groves of Oxford.
The backdrop for DCI Jack McGovern, keeping an eye on Hungarian emigres in Oxford, and investigative journalist Gerry Blackstone, probing the suspicious death of a young woman in London, is a country on the cusp of rapid change: political and social.
Wilson patiently weaves the physical fabric of Oxford and bomb-torn London, but eschewing the prosodic city of Brideshead Revisited and John Betjeman’s venerable verse.
Her Britain is a militarised country, with the biggest defence budget in Europe to thwart the growing menace of the Soviet Union, busy quashing the stillborn revolution in brave upstart Hungary.
Wilson presciently mirrors events on the shores of modern day Greece: the authorities in Oxford are unable to cope with the distribution of asylum seekers.
“They have a genuine grievance in a way,” observes a volunteer.
“So much energy has gone into bringing them all over here from Austria that plans for sending them further on have lagged behind.”
In the wake of the Cambridge defectors, Wilson’s Oxford seems ripe for backstabbing skulduggery amid Special Branch’s none-too subtle fishing exercise to flush out would be Donald Macleans and Kim Philbys: it’s not quite George Smiley territory, but neither is it Inspector Morse snooping among the bespectacled and potty professors of Balliol College.
Unfortunately, as the pace drops, the scenes become passing blurs and the narrative flags.
Wilson’s protagonists do lack charm; the detective who expects his wife to give up painting in exchange for a few ‘bairns’; the cynical hack not adverse to paying for sex, which he is not much good at unless paralytic; the hostess, already on husband number two, enjoying a less than discreet and offbeat affair with a government minister.
The ingredients are there for a clever plot, but don’t always transfer to the menu, primarily because the supporting cast is either inarticulate or unequivocally dumb.
People in Oxford are discommoded, but nobody gets truly angry, swears or throws tantrums.
It is all too civil, with an over abundance of ‘darling’ and ‘chaps’.
Leave aside She Died Young for a day or two, and it isn’t easy to pick up the scent again.
The proliferation of minor characters — I counted six in one paragraph — further muddies the water.
Pivotal moments of illumination are hamfisted and unconvincing.
Such as the unlikely discovery of a dead woman’s handbag secreted in a fireplace, within which conveniently is a diary, and described by Wilson as ‘a ticking bomb’, or the research student who inexplicably asks a detective if he has called to his tutor’s house because of the rolls of cash in the library.
‘What mad impulse had made him say that?’ wonders Wilson.
But mad and not so mad impulses abound in She Died Young, segued by staged or stilted dialogue.
If the spycatchers in She Died Young were inspired by real cops, it is no surprise to me how Britain’s most notorious spy ring in Cambridge went undetected for decades.
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