Any book with a cover showing a submarine in a loch gives me that sinking feeling. I’ve never read any of Alan Judd’s books. He’s prolific and has a whole stack of fiction and nonfiction published. Deep Blue was West Dunbartonshire libraries novel of the week (here’s where I do a bit of boasting and tell you my novel Lily Poole was also a novel of the week https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lily-Poole-Jack-ODonnell/dp/1783522356) and that’s how I heard about it, from the library’s website. It’s a topical novel, dealing with fringe groups of the SNP, terrorism and the bureaucracy of government and in particular the work of M16 and M15. The hero and narrator is Charles Thoroughgood, head of M16. He’s looking back to a time in the 1980s, when the term Deep Blue, first came into play, a relic of the Cold War, still on file, but a dead end, until, of course, it rises up again. Narration alternates between Thoroughgood’s past and present and the plotting is superb. I read almost 300 pages in two gulps.
Any book about agents and the Cold War automatically gets compared with John Le Carre. Judd handles superbly well the backbiting of politics, turf wars between government departments, the Home Secretary, and the heads of M15 and M16. You’ve probably never heard of special government advisors (SPADs). Unfortunately I have. David Cameron and that other spawn of the devil, George Osborne were SPADs, unpaid lackeys, waiting for their chance to enter the House of Commons.
The Sovbloc file on Deep Blue also has a narrator, codename Badger, returning to his gulag to check out his bunk and the guards that still watch over it in Gorbachev’s era. He’s a fixer in the Politburo named Federov and has climbed the greasy poll to the top of the Kremlin. Federov, also, incidentally, writes like a novelist and his copy of that visit is pasted verbatim in English into the file on Badger. The young Charlie finds from an old Russian crony, Joseph, elderly Russian émigré and British agent in Paris who shared the gulag with Badger that the latter can be tapped for information. He can be turned. It won’t be easy but isn’t that difficult either, but following false trails and Josef getting drunk and nostalgic the past becomes the present and Deep Blue is something Badger mentions as a long-term piece of KGB sabotage.
Somehow this is tied in with the Home Secretary’s SPAD, a woman, Melanie Stokes who had no clearance from the Home Office or M16 and whose current partner, James Micklewaite is on file as having worked with the KGB and dissident members of SNP that aim to get Trident missiles moved out of the Scotland and Faslane. Amen to that (sshh I’m also a dissident and have voted SNP and for Independence). And James’s sister was once Charles’s girlfriend and Charles’s current wife is the former wife of the head of M16, who died suddenly and was also Charlie’s close friend. Everybody knows everybody, but this is London. This is bureaucracy at work and there’s something of the John Le Carre-ish at work here too, with the kind of overworked head of the service having to investigate Deep Blue whilst ostensibly on holiday to save money and more importantly to save face if anything goes wrong. Deep Blue is radioactive, but not as radioactive as failure, which gets everyone scurrying in the other direction and hunkering down.
The denouement is in my neck of the woods, Dumbarton and the road to Roseneath. The heroic Charles saving innocent children’s lives turns out to be bathetic, which is exactly the right tone. Alan Judd is a wonderful writer, who really knows his stuff. But there were a few minor quibbles, usually involving someone smiling. And someone is looking at someone else ‘interrogatively’. I’ll need to investigate that one myself.