George Mueller is at a turning point in his CIA career. He isn't the typical 'old boy' at the agency: midwestern, public school, Yale on scholarship, but he's done things right. Rowed in the crew, sang in the Whiffenpoofs, made good friends, served in the OSS behind German lines during the war, worked on Wall Street afterwards. His boredom on the street was relieved when his Yale friend Roger Altman recruited him for the Agency; he worked with and married an Austrian woman and had a son. Now they are back in Austria, Mueller is drinking too much, and the director wants him to identify the agent who is passing information to the Soviets, though there is considerable suspicion placed on him.
And, while investigating, he meets his friend Roger's sister, Beth.
Paul Vidich's first novel is a spy story of the old school, and, as the title might suggest, very much an hommage to John LeCarre. (Full disclosure: Paul and I were at university together, though whether I qualify as an old boy I don't know. But like George Mueller, I am able to evaluate dispassionately). But it also benefits from recent events: the Soviet weekend compound on Maryland's Eastern Shore which plays a part in this story was in the news during the questions about Russian involvement in the last US presidential campaign.
An Honorable Man is strongest on setting: it is 1953 and it feels like it: I'd compare it to Don Winslow's slightly later Isle Of Joy for accurate period atmosphere. But it's the deep atmosphere at which Vidich is even better, and not just the CIA background. Those who've delved into the deep state will recognise some of the players and situations, there is even a winking tip (I think) to the former chaplain of Yale, an ex Company man (another character is named, coincidentally, I assume, after a best friend of mine from a rival university). The spy craft part of the story rings true. But more importantly, Vidich is pitch-perfect on the clubby feeling of those CIA old boys and their clubby haunts, the assumptions and blind-spots which those feelings carry with them. It's very much like LeCarre, because the core of the book lies in the very LeCarre question of loyalty's, and the fact that the nature of the spy game depends on loyalty, and depends on betrayal of that loyalty. Meuller's dislocation from this world is the reason this novel works so well: the reader shares his almost dizzy feeling of instability. There is nowhere to sink the anchor of faith or trust, and Meuller is in every sense adrift. 'Washington is a terrible place for an honourable man to work,' he explains at one point.
I might have preferred even more ambiguity in this masque of betrayal. Toward the end of the book, Altman says that Mueller was always the director's favourite spy. The Favourite Spy might have been a more accurate title, open to more interpretations, but as I said, An Honorable Man sets the story into its context, and Vidich takes up the challenge and delivers, as its resolved with a resolutely tragic sadness that lives up to its title's challenge. If you like the classic spy novel, this one delivers.
AN HONORABLE MAN by Paul Vidich
No Exit Press
cloth £14.99 ISBN 9781843449577
paper £8.99 9781843449584
NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)