Friday, 16 August 2019


Many of the greatest writers of espionage fiction have been fascinated by the idea of betrayal, and the ways in which its being stock in trade for a spy means it must necessarily become part of the personal lives of those involved in the great game. It is the essence of John LeCarre, but he is far from alone in building on E.M. Forster’s famous dictum about having the courage to choose friend over country.

For starters, a spy must keep his or her work secret, which means having secrets, lying, to those you supposedly love. And of course, because they are practiced liars trained in deception and, by definition, believers in ends justifying means, it is no surprise that this paradox rears its ugly head frequently.

But few writers have put it at the centre of a novel quite the way Andreas Norman has in The Silent War, which opens with the head of Swedish intelligence in Brussels, Bente Jensen, being passed files which reveal a British programme of torture carried out at a secret site in the Middle East. This will put her at odds with the Brussels station chief of MI6, Jonathan Green, and the scene is set at an embassy reception in which quick glances and a partner absent for just a short while begin a tale in which every relationship is never quite what it seems.

What makes it work is the way the personal morality gets in the way of the larger issues of political morality, and it is odd that Norman, a former Swedish diplomat, is most cutting in the relationship of Green and his MI6 friend and colleague with whom he is at least nominally competing for a deputy directorship, Like honourable schoolboys, theirs is perhaps the most telling and coldblooded in the book.

What doesn’t quite work is the nature of Jensen and Green’s past, of which there are hints but no definition—it seems personal from the start, but it doesn’t go that far. Green’s operation in Syria and his final efforts to contain the leaked documents add action to the story, but the real action is what takes place behind the scenes. The book is best when it is focused on betrayal, and in the end, those who are the best at it are the ones who gain the ultimate victory.

The Silent War by Andreas Norman
translated from the Swedish by Ian Giles
Riverun, £20, ISBN 9781784293628
published 5 September 2019

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (

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