|Date Published||02 July 2015|
The Suicide Club
British forces are mired in the bloody stalemate of Passchendaele. Prime Minister Lloyd George is unhappy with progress and soldier-spy Sandy Innes, sent to report on the divided headquarters of commander-in-chief Sir Douglas Haig, soon suspects treachery.
Williams’ hero, Sandy Innes, a Scottish Catholic officer, is a complex but very sympathetic character. Having survived being buried alive, he is conflicted about his sense of duty, loyalty and faith, but finds both purpose and love in his undercover work with the Belgian resistance movement.
Meanwhile, in London, questions are being asked in government about the leadership of the army and Innes is summoned back by his boss, Captain Mansfield Cumming, first head of what was to become MI6, Britain’s overseas intelligence operation. He is officially transferred to Haig’s headquarters, allegedly to prepare agents for the ‘big push’, but his secret mission is to assess the reliability of the intelligence on which the Field Marshall is basing his decisions.
Innes is caught in this power play between the generals at GHQ and the Whitehall politicians, and soon becomes aware of massive divisions in Whitehall, many based on religious prejudice, within Haig’s staff, and starts to suspect that the information on which the generals are basing their offensive may, in fact, be a German counter-intelligence operation.
With thousands of lives at stake, Innes must navigate a series of moral and factual mazes and put his own life on the line to find the truth. Set over a period of a few months in the summer and autumn of 1917, the story is based on real events.
The cast includes historical personalities like Haig, Lloyd George, War Cabinet Secretary Maurice Hankey, Cumming and Brigadier General John Charteris, director of military intelligence, and some drawn from real life, such as intelligence officers James Marshall-Cornwall and Stuart Menzies, who went on to head MI6 during the Second World War.
The workings of the Belgian underground, the variety of those involved, including many Catholic priests, and the risks they ran, are vividly described in a compelling and detailed portrait of the intricacies of war – which never neglects the sacrifice and bravery of those on the front lines, the ‘lions led by donkeys.’
The Suicide Club is comprehensively researched, carefully plotted and quite brilliantly written. With an unerring sense of locale – from an Antwerp brothel to the GHQ mess – and period, the sheer impetus of storytelling makes it almost impossible to put down.
Williams, like John le Carre, is clearly fascinated by the business of trust and betrayal, but somehow manages to balance all the elements with totally persuasive characters, a strong narrative and disturbing correspondences between fact and fiction.
Among the many books on the First World War now being published, this stands out as an exciting and fascinating read that sheds light on a little known aspect, but never allows it to get in the way of a gripping plot, tense set-pieces and convincing, memorable and sympathetic characters.
Reviewed 10 October 2015 by John Cleal