Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
Devotees of espionage fiction have long been aware of the machinations of MI6, the KGB and CIA as depicted by Fleming and his followers. We accepted Bond as fantasy, dead drops as ingenious inventions of the author, world dominance the dream of villainous megalomaniacs. We lived in a toytown world of make-believe and were totally unprepared for the truth.
Duns tells it as it is. Oleg Penkovsky, mid-ranking Russian colonel and the focus of this book, was pompous and vulgar, in stark contrast to the ostensible niceties of the system that used him to obtain vital secrets from the USSR. Traitor and spy, wannabe celebrity, glutton and lecher, he even haggled over his pay from MI6 and the CIA. All this was accepted as mere flaws in view of his access to the Kremlin’s intentions and his ability to extract and supply information in the form of excellent photographs, film and wordy letters. (The latter accompanied by itemized statements of his expected remuneration when he defected and demands that he be received by the Queen.)
Penkovsky was such an unsympathetic person that one is left with a twinge of sadness suspecting that he was doomed. Duns skates over his end. Along with his handler in Moscow, Greville Wynne, he was caught by the KGB. Penkovsky was shot, Wynne got eight years of which he served eighteen months and was exchanged for Konon Molody, alias Gordon Lonsdale. Their handover at a Berlin checkpoint provides the one moment of overt suspense in the book. Overt because the danger was always present as British agents went about their day jobs and their secret lives in Moscow during the Cold War, a war which Duns points out has never ended.
The capture of Penkovsky was the starter for investigations by MI6, the CIA and by Duns himself as to who had betrayed him. The Russians claimed that he was detected through accidental surveillance of the wife of a “diplomat” who accepted his material while walking her children in a park. “Exposure by accident” was to everyone’s advantage. MI6 and the CIA not wanting it to be known that there was a mole in their midst who had betrayed him (while spymasters sought frantically to discover his identity), the Russians because they needed to keep such a mole in place. A convincing and unnerving theory since such a man – or woman – may be only the tip of an iceberg. So another kind of cold war persists, different only in the opponents; for Moscow read Iran, North Korea, anywhere. The risks continue: the horrors that await exposure, the obscenities of nuclear extinction. Against this Duns forces us to believe that, despite vastly improved technology dead drops are still in use: the tins of Harpic with false bottoms, marks on lamp standards, film slipped into babies’ prams. This is the stuff of novels and of nightmares.