Author Carolyn Kirby reviews A Prince and A Spy by Rory Clements, the fifth novel in his Tom Wilde series of thrillers set before and during the Second World War.
When it comes to historical accuracy, Kate Atkinson says of her novel Transcription (2018) that the story was created through “…a wrenching apart of history followed by an imaginative reconstruction.” This technique is familiar to those of us who root our novels in real events but who also love to devise gripping fictional plots, and it is used to striking effect in Rory Clements’s new WWII thriller A Prince and A Spy.
The story told in A Prince and A Spy is woven around a little known but very real event, the crash in Scotland of a Sunderland flying boat on 25 August, 1942, which killed Prince George, Duke of Kent, the King’s brother. As is the way with high profile air disasters, the real reasons behind this flight and the cause of its crash became the subject of ongoing speculation.
Rory Clements gives his take on the ‘accident’ by building a complex structure of imagined wartime intrigue over the basic fact of the crash. Into this intrigue comes his regular fictional protagonist Tom Wilde, a Cambridge history professor and American spy, who is sent by the OSS (forerunner of the CIA) to investigate the crash site.
What follows is a highly satisfying adventure for spy thriller fans. Like the view from an ascending aeroplane, Tom’s perspective on the crash widens as the plot thickens. Soon, his investigation is taking in the secret links between European royals, the political tentacles of a public school’s secret society and the first inklings in the West of an unthinkable genocide that is taking place beyond the reach of Allied spy planes in eastern Europe.
Clements takes the reader on a fast-paced, ever-twisting journey, igniting suspicions about the many shady characters along the way. Is Harriet Hartwell, the moody yet courageous female agent really on the same side as Wilde? Is Walter Quayle, Wilde’s ‘queer’ MI6 minder to be trusted? Changing locations keep the reader absorbed too; from a blitzed London nightclub, to a snake-infested Swedish island, to a dreadful railway siding in Poland. The Fleet Street newspaper office is especially vivid, perhaps drawn from the author’s long career in journalism.
All the key narrative elements of the spy thriller are here: the speedboat chase, the cyanide capsule, the evil genius at the heart of the establishment. Readers of my own wartime novel will also spot a familiar trope in the suitcase full of evidence (although from a different context in When We Fall) that must be smuggled on to an illicit flight in order to expose a hidden atrocity to the world.
The style of A Prince and A Spy corresponds with the era in which it is set. Wilde, a trained boxer as well as an academic, is a traditional hero: strong, clever and with an unfailing moral compass.
This is the fifth Tom Wilde novel and readers coming to it first may find some of the recurring characters thinly sketched. I was intrigued to know more about Tom’s ‘common-law wife’, Lydia, but the background to their unconventional relationship is to be found in the earlier books and not recapped here.
The novel’s blurring of fact and fiction means that each new character raises the question: ‘Are they real?’ Clements’s addendum, ‘What Happened To Them?’, provides some answers; but it omits a few bit players that I would have liked to know more about, like Adolf Eichmann and Princess Marina, the Duke of Kent’s widow. Also included at the end is an Author’s Note which gives a nod to the remarkable Jan Karski. Anyone seeking more historical background to the core theme of this thriller should read Karski’s 1944 memoir Story of a Secret State, which is an astonishing record of wartime horror and heroism.
Reality returns to the denouement of A Prince and a Spy with Churchill giving a moving explanation of why, when it comes to revealing the most dreadful of the Nazis’ crimes, the Allies in 1942 are powerless. “Churchill’s face took on its gravest attitude, the jowls dropped, even the cigar seemed to sag. Wilde was shocked to see tears in the man’s eyes.” This is an imagined scene, of course, but Churchill’s explanation has, like much else in this memorable thriller, the ring of truth.
The novel ends with a suitably dramatic and conclusive finale; but then on the final page a telephone call brings information that adds a new and unresolved strand to the mystery. Tom Wilde will most certainly be back, and I can’t wait!
Carolyn Kirby’s first novel The Conviction of Cora Burns was long-listed for the HWA Debut Crown Awards 2019. Her latest novel, When We Fall, is a thriller about women pilots and Polish resistance fighters in WW2.
She has written about the background to her novels for Historia:
Fifty years of fake news; the cover-up of the Katyn Massacre (about When We Fall)
‘Paedo Hunter Turns Prey!’ The ironic fate of the father of tabloid journalism (about The Conviction of Cora Burns)
Read Carolyn’s interview with the historian Clare Mulley about the wartime SOE agent Krystyna Skarbek, who was the subject of Clare’s bestselling 2012 biography The Spy Who Loved.
The Duke of Kent shakes hands with a BOAC pilot as he prepares to board Consolidated Liberator Mark I, AM261, of Ferry Command, photograph CH 3161 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums: via Wikimedia