Restless in wartime

Book cover, RestlessBook Review: Restless

by William Boyd (2006)

Although this is a novel of espionage set during the Second World War, there is little of the James Bond stuff in it. The novel deals mostly with propaganda. The main effort was to draw America into the war. Britain was under siege, struggling to fight off the Nazis. Britain needed all the help it could get. America was reluctant to get involved in another European war. Whatever Roosevelt thought hardly mattered. Congress and the public wanted nothing to do with another European war. Besides it was 3,000 miles away, it was not an American problem. The job of the British espionage unit was to convince Americans that it was not just a European problem, but a world problem.

I found it intriguing the way false stories were spread. They would concoct a story —  something the Nazis were supposed to have done, something that was detrimental or insulting to Americans. Then they would get it published, or radio presented, in some minor news outlet in America. Once that was done, they would send it out again with an American dateline. Before long it would be picked up by other news agencies, no longer aware of the source. Because everyone was now reporting it as coming from American sources, the article would be assumed to be infallible truth.

The story has two distinct threads. The first thread is told by Ruth Gilmartin in 1976. It starts during a visit to her mother who lived in a country cottage in a remote part of England. Ruth’s mother was acting strangely, but gave her a manuscript to read, stressing its importance.

When Ruth got back home, she began reading the manuscript, the story of Eva Delectorskaya, who it turns out is her  mother, born in Russia, but with one English parent. Ruth was astounded by these revelations, for they were never spoken of, even to her father, who had recently died.

In the manuscript, Eva Delectorskaya describes being persuaded to leave France, go to England and work for British espionage. The year was 1939, and they could see a war looming.  This is the second strand to the story. The two strands are cleverly interwoven, one chapter set in 1940, the next chapter set in 1976.


William Boyd

But it is the war story that is most interesting. How Eva Delectorskaya, now called Eva Dalton worked for British Intelligence, first in Belgium, and later in the United States. Her main job was to concoct stories that would waste the time of the German military, or trick them into moving forces to a remote location, expecting an attack.

Her recruiter, is an Englishman, Lucas Romer. He asks Eva to accompany him to a border post near Germany. Eva’s purpose is  to make contact with a Dutch agent in a café, while  Lucas is to meet the German defector, who will cross the border into Belgium. But it all goes horribly wrong. The defector is betrayed; German forces cross the border, kill the Dutch agent, taking his body back to Germany along with two captured British Agents.

Eva finds she has been left alone, and has to find her own way back to Ostend, in Belgium.  All the same her information was viewed as valuable and saved their team from being seen as a failure. The Dutch were held responsible for the disaster.

As the story progresses, Eva is sent to New York, where she slowly becomes romantically involved with Lucas Romer, her boss.  There is a huge presence of English Intelligence officers there, working to drag America into the war.

Eva is sent on a “honey trap” mission, involving a close aide to President Roosevelt. It involves being found in a compromising position with the aide in a hotel, so that he can be blackmailed. It is successful, and they now have increased information about what Roosevelt really thinks about the war. As Eva Dalton establishes her reputation as a top agent, she is given more important assignments.

Near the end of 1941 she is sent on a special mission, involving the selling of a false map showing German airlines flying regular flights from South America into Mexico and Florida. The map is purported to be a German one, showing the military intentions of Germany. But Eva sees errors in the map, spelling errors, that would not be made by Germans. She hesitates with the selling of the map. She suspects something is wrong. Indeed it is. The map was supposed to convince Roosevelt that the Germans were preparing to occupy parts of South America, moving closer and closer, and perhaps attacking Florida.
But if the map was seen as fake, a British fake, it would discredit the whole British operation in America.

Eva is captured and realises that she has been set-up to fail, someone has double crossed their team. Was it the FBI who were deeply concerned about what the British were doing, or was it German espionage who were working against them?

Eva returns to New York — a story in itself. She tells her team, led by Lucas Romer, everything that happened. She is now deeply in love with Lucas, and they spend lost weekends together in hotel rooms.

Eva is troubled by the failed operation, convinced she was betrayed by someone, but who? Lucas Romer tells her it turned out a great success in the end, and they are all proud of her. But she still has doubts —  however it turned out in the end — someone sold her. One of her associates comes up with a suspect, but mysteriously commits suicide before revealing the name, but it is someone within their organisation. Suddenly she suspects that it is her lover, Lucas Romer. But why would he betray his own organisation, and have her killed?

She flees to Canada, then eventually back to England, covering her tracks again and again, changing her identity, using the tricks she had been taught. The war ends, she settles down with a husband and raises her family, the past events hidden.

The other part of the story — 35 years later — involves Eva’s daughter, Ruth, who is helping her mother track down Lucas Romer.  Eva believes that Lucas Romer — a double agent — has discovered where she lives and intends to kill her, the only survivor of his team. All the other team members are dead, killed one way or another.

The two strands of the story work together beautifully, like platted hair.

The TV adaptation follows the book fairly closely. The book explains things a little more clearly, but both are interesting and exciting. It is good to read a book about a spy — who is not a James Bond clone, fighting a horde of highly armed men with his bare fists — but an intelligent, brave woman.

If you are wearing your cynical hat and looking for flaws and platitudes, then you’ll find what you are looking for. Take off your hat, and enjoy the journey. The book is smooth, easily read, the story fits together; how much is true or false, only an expert could tell. It doesn’t matter, it is entertaining, intelligent, well-written fiction.

 Marcus Clark 2014

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