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by James Green
Accent, August 2012
353 pages
7.99 GBP
ISBN: 1908262893

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

James Green, a former head teacher, has embarked on an ambitious project – a series of five novels outlining the history of American intelligence services through some of the major events in US history from its formation as the Contingent Fund of Foreign Intercourse in 1790 to its emergence as the CIA in and on to the final story covering the strange World War II incident of the Callander Witch.

This debut novel covers six months in 1802. America has thrown off British rule, but sits nervously on the sidelines as France, with Napoleon as First Consul, and George III's England battle for world supremacy, while facing its own problems – growing tension between the industrial North and slave-owning South and the urgent need to expand westwards into the vast area nominally controlled by the Spanish, but in reality the gift of France, which police minister and spymaster Joseph Fouché plots to use as bait to tie America to the French cause by installing the last surviving Stuart as a puppet king.

Scottish-French Boston lawyer Jean Marie McLeod is a bitter man. Mocked in childhood for his Christian names 'Jean Mary', he has lost his wife and child to a British artillery bombardment while he was serving with George Washington's army and retreated into a hate-filled world of business and booze. His one saving grace is that he is a patriot. A casual insult leads to a bizarre request from a former commanding officer and he is pitched into the world of lies, deception, double dealing and death which is international diplomacy where a knife in the back is punishment for a wrong decision.

Sent to New Orleans, McLeod meets the beautiful Marie, the stunning trophy wife of the homosexual aristocratic fop Étienne de Valois. Thrown together, they stumble through a dangerous maze which involves the intelligence apparatus of three countries and the will of a group of powerful men who plan to dictate America's future.

This is a complex and fascinating plot that sticks fairly closely to fact and perhaps presages things to come, as the organisation that is eventually to become the CIA is not without its internal problems and even in its infancy exhibits a disturbing tendency towards 'collateral damage' as bodies pile up. Green triumphs with his ability to blend facts with his story to make rivetting reading. One or two of his characters may be a bit stereotyped – the bumbling British aristocrat spy, the nasty Italian nobleman who would cut his mother's throat for money – but most are cleverly drawn and quite believable, even when their motives are at their most hidden. The dialogue sparkles, accurately reflecting the book's period setting, with even quite minor characters being allowed to develop their own reality. The growing relationship between McLeod and Marie is handled both sympathetically and with a touch of humour. This outstanding historical debut and based on this, the remainder of the story should be well worth following.

§John Cleal is a former soldier and journalist with an interest in medieval history. He divides his time between France and England.

Reviewed by John Cleal, November 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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