Review: The Man In The Corduroy Suit

James Wolff – The Man In The Corduroy Suit (Blog Tour)

Published by Bitter Lemon Press, paperback £9.99. Also available in ebook and audio book I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

First, the official blurb: British intelligence is in a state of panic. Cracks are appearing, or so a run of disciplinary cases would suggest. To cap it all, Willa Karlsson, a retired MI5 officer collapses, the victim of what looks like a Russian poisoning. Leonard Flood is ordered to investigate – and quickly. Notorious for his sharp elbows and blunt manner, Leonard’s only objective is to get the job done, whatever the cost. But when the trail leads him from the suburbs of London to a remote country hotel, he makes a startling discovery that will change his life forever.

My second blog tour review this month and it’s a second spy novel after not having read one for ages – the universe is definitely dropping hints as to what it thinks I should be exploring!

But while The Man In The Corduroy Suit shares a fair amount of DNA with Moscow Exile there are also many differences. One of the things I love about crime fiction is that there are themes and tropes that recur but also infinite variety when it comes to what an author chooses to do with those building blocks. 

Thematically linked to Wolff’s two previous novels and taking place in the same universe, The Man In The Corduroy Suit nevertheless is a standalone. Its premise is straightforward: What do you do when your spies don’t do what they’re told to? Who watches the watchmen? It’s a perennial theme in spy fiction, a genre which lives in the world of secrets, lies and paranoia, and it’s a rich seam.

Willa Karlsson, 64, has been admitted to hospital with symptoms suggesting she was poisoned. She resigned from the intelligence services the previous year, after dedicating much of her life to being a vetting officer – asking intrusive questions about all areas of a prospective candidate’s life before deciding if they are fit to join the service. 

Charles Remnant, tweed jacket and regimental tie in place despite even 30 years after his military service, is recruiting Leonard Flood – the titular man in the corduroy suit – from the ordinary ranks to that of a “Gatekeeper”. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Remnant does, and now so does Leonard. That suit is Leonard’s adopted uniform, making him look harmless if indeed he is noticed at all. He may not be a legendary Grey Man, or as quietly unassuming as George Smiley, but he’s definitely on the same family tree. 

What sets him apart from his colleagues is an ability to get answers from people in what could be described as a “robust” fashion – less empathy, more penetration and determination (one assessment says he has “an impressive ability to kneel on the bruise”; what a wonderfully informative metaphor – there are some great lines throughout). Now he is to look into Willa’s life, after GCHQ has intercepted a suggestive piece of data. Has she really got long-standing links with Russia? It seems so far-fetched…

Searching her flat, it’s evident her personality outside work was very different to that projected in the office. His exploration and interrogation of the neighbourhood – dry cleaner, hairdresser, church priest – is a delight; probing questions but with a veneer of politeness and concern.

With help from another officer – younger, female; jumpsuit-and-Doc Martens, and relentlessly data-driven – a link to a country house hotel in Norfolk is revealed. The pair’s train journey conversation is all defiance and verbal fencing, and these scenes are exhilarating and hugely enjoyable. The hotel yields some details – and a potential target.

Back in London, Remnant reveals to Leonard that there is more to all this than he was first told. And then Willa wakes up in hospital, and things get very interesting indeed: the Russian embassy is in play, there’s a moment of deft sneakiness and an agreeable amount of spycraft on show as we hurtle to the final pages.

The qualities that make Leonard an excellent hard interviewer are also those which make him difficult to like, but on his return to London we see another side to him, and as he unpicks what has been done and makes new choices, we have both sympathy and a sense that we’re definitely on his side, rather than just being bystanders.

There’s plenty of warmth as well as wit and charm with sharp edges in these pages. It’s not exactly a cosy, but the body count is minimal, so if you’re in need of something lighter, it would definitely fit the bill. All in all it’s a very modern spy story with an old-fashioned flavour and a refreshing reliance on the power of words rather than violence.

James Wolff worked for the British government for more than ten years before leaving to write espionage fiction. His first novel, Beside The Syrian Sea, was a Times Crime Book of the Month and an Evening Standard Book of the Year. Of his second novel, How To Betray Your Country, Publishers Weekly wrote: “Brilliant sequel. This is spy fiction like no other.” You can find the author’s website at:

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

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