Review: Moscow Exile

John Lawton – Moscow Exile (Blog Tour)

Author John Lawton (Picture: Nick Lockett)

Published by Grove Press, hardback £16.99, also available in ebook. I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Ayo Onatade at Shotsblog for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

First, the official blurb: Charlotte is a British expatriate who has recently settled in Washington, DC with her second husband, but enviable dinner parties aren’t the only thing she is planning. Meanwhile, Charlie Leigh-Hunt has been posted to Washington as a replacement for Guy Burgess, last seen disappearing around the corner and into the Soviet Union. Charlie is surprised to cross paths with Charlotte, an old flame of his, who, thanks to her gossipy parties, has a packed pocketbook full of secrets she is eager to share. Two decades later, in 1969, Joe Wilderness is stuck on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, held captive by the KGB, a chip in a game way above his pay grade – but his old friends Frank and Eddie are going to try to spring him out of the toughest prison in the world. All roads lead back to Berlin, and to the famous Bridge of Spies…

Spy novels are something that can be set in any time and place for at their heart they are essentially stories about secrets and their protection or revelation, and how that affects those who hold them and seek them. But there’s something particularly seductive about those set during the Cold War… John Lawton’s latest novel, Moscow Exile, takes full advantage of the Cold War settings and tropes, giving us a cracking tale.

We open with a series of vignettes: 1969, Berlin, the Glienicke Bridge and a prisoner exchange – there’s a definite humour to this scene, are we getting ready for a rollicking ride? But then it’s 1945, Poland and it’s all very horrible indeed. And finally, it’s 1941, London and it’s all change again. Three very different times and places, and yet we know – for that is the nature of the crime novel – that all three are somehow connected, though this time-shifting, viewpoint-shifting, shape-shifting story makes us wait for those revelations.

After the snappiness of the prologue, there is a long stretch of quiet chapters building the layers of people and settings and secrets with care. You wait a long time for it to turn into “A Joe Wilderness novel” as the front cover proclaims it to be, but don’t think of skipping ahead, as you will miss so much.

For starters you’d miss the journeys of multi-lingual, multi-husbanded Charlotte, aka Coky, as she moves from being nestled near the centre of government in London to Washington, DC, where her soirees become legendary and she gets close to a senator, to finally arriving in Italy. She’s not always likeable despite her charm, but this woman with nine lives is fascinating nonetheless – tough, skilled at both the dirty work and the creation of the veneer of respectability that hides so much. And reading between the lines things are not always as easy for her as it seems; she’s paid a large price more than once. 

You’d also miss Charlie Leigh-Hunt, who knows Charlotte of old and is very happy to bump into her in Washington after being sent there by MI6 to replace one Guy Burgess, who has inconveniently defected to Russia. Kim Philby too makes a memorable appearance; the mixing in of real people and places embeds the story in the period neatly. Charlie gets a few more stamps in his passport before also ending up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, with delightfully dismal surroundings – though he does discover a love of growing carrots, so it’s not all bad.

Finally we catch up with Joe Wilderness again “somewhere east of Berlin”, recovering from being shot while crossing the Glienicke Bridge in the divided German city. A few weeks later, he’s rather further east, and as he receives a visitor, we spool back to the planning of the Berlin operation seen in the opening pages.

Getting into spying, it seems, is very much a case of who you know and who you meet, and little to do with motivation, character or aptitude – that comes later (though aptitude does not always appear here…). But while Charlotte and Charlie have very different methods, their main similarity is their easy way with people – and a willingness to exploit them. 

And of course, it’s about class. They go to school or university or play sports together, they go to their clubs and dinner parties and generally mingle. Information is gleaned, passed on, paid for. The Cambridge spies got away with it for so long because the British Establishment could not begin to believe “people like us” could do anything as crass as betray their country. 

Thankfully for Wilderness, there are some of that British Establishment who have not turned on their country nor on those deemed to have served it well. So, eventually, Wilderness gets what he wants, his contact (sort of) gets what he wants, and the Russian general gets what she wants. And the reader gets what they want: a satisfying conclusion that wraps up the many strands of this decades-spanning story. It’s a deft, often funny, large-scale yet frequently intimate portrait of spies and spying that makes the reader hunger for more stories in the series. 

John Lawton has written eight Inspector Troy thrillers, three previous Joe Wilderness novels, a standalone novel and a volume of history. His Inspector Troy novels have been named best books of the year by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and New York Times Book Review. He lives in Derbyshire, England.

Don’t forget to check out all the reviews on the blog tour!

2 thoughts on “Review: Moscow Exile

  1. Espionage is all so topsy turvy and confusing! If Kim Philby had never been caught there would never have been a postage stamp made after him or even a monument of him in Moscow and most of us would never have heard of him even though he was a cousin of Field Marshal Montgomery. If only he had read the epic spy novel Beyond Enkription in The Burlington Files series! It’s about Pemberton’s People in MI6 and is a must read for espionage cognoscenti. Have a look at a recent intriguing news article in TheBurlingtonFiles website dated 31 October 2022 about Colonel Pemberton’s People in MI6, John le Carré and Kim Philby. You may be gobsmacked.


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