Cover Image: The Spy Across the Water

The Spy Across the Water

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Member Reviews

The Spy Across the Water is the third instalment in James Naughtie’s spy series featuring the three Flemyng brothers – Will, Abel and Mungo.  In fact, we’re down to two brothers now which is not a spoiler because Abel’s funeral is the opening scene in the book. However, the circumstances, if not the place, of Abel’s death are still a mystery, something Will is determined to discover more about. When he does it forms one of the threads of an intricately woven tapestry that is the hallmark of all good spy thrillers.

Set in 1985, the story is fiction (as the author points out in the Foreword) but the historical events which form the background to it are real, namely the tentative and secret discussions between the British and Irish governments aimed at reaching a settlement to the conflict in Northern Ireland, the so-called Troubles.  The tensions between those in the Republican movement willing to consider a negotiated settlement and those who are determined to continue the armed struggle are incorporated into the storyline as Will’s past intelligence role and the connections he made during that period come back to haunt him.

I’m not quite sure how I managed to miss the earlier books in the series because this sort of spy thriller is right up my street. The fact I hadn’t read the previous two books didn’t stop me enjoying this one although tantalising references to events in the earlier books – Paris in the summer of 1968, a puzzling death and an affair that destroyed one of Will’s colleagues – made me wish I’d discovered the series at its beginning.

The comparison to the novels of John le Carré is spot on, particularly when it comes to the storyline involving the possibility that the identity of a Soviet agent working for the British, who has been supplying intelligence material that is ‘gold dust’, has been discovered by the Americans, possibly by a mole at the heart of US intelligence.  We’re in real Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy territory here with Will Flemyng’s protege, Patrick Keane, fulfilling the Peter Guillam role in that book.  And if we’re looking for more comparisons there’s James Jesus Angleton (a real life figure), convinced there’s a conspiracy around every corner, who made me think of Control’s feverish search for the identity of the Circus mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. As a former comrade of Will’s recalls, ‘He was getting more and more obssessive about penetration – disappearing into his files for weeks on end, the blinds down in his eyrie and no one allowed near.’

I liked how Will, secretive by nature as well as the possessor of secrets, feeds Keane just enough snippets of information so that Keane has to figure things out for himself. Keane also does the legwork and takes the risks that Will no longer can because of his role as Ambassador, although you get the impression he’d quite like to if the chance arose.  The team is completed by Lucy, one of the few people who can read Will’s moods and second guess his next move. If I’m being picky I’d have liked a bigger role for her than preparing papers, organising flights and booking hotel rooms. And I’d love to know more about Will’s relationship with his wife and children who at this point are back in London.

Some of my favourite parts of the book were those set in Altnabuie, the Flemyng family home in Perthshire, Scotland currently occupied by Will’s older brother, Mungo. I loved the descriptions of Mungo’s daily tramps and the local scenery which (sorry, another comparison coming) reminded me of the writing of John Buchan, also a Perthshire man.  ‘The tapestry had light and shade, the dark foliage of the pines and spruce in the wood standing out against the vivid greens and yellows on the hillside. The water on the loch was swept with sun, then blackened again when the lines of light disappeared.’ When Mungo’s peaceful life appears threatened, Will has even more incentive to get to the bottom of things and to find the link between a number of seemingly unconnected events, a link that tantalisingly eludes him for quite a while.

The Spy Across the Water is a terrific spy thriller whose intricate plot will keep you on your toes.  You get the clear sense the author’s experience as a BBC correspondent has helped the story’s feeling of authenticity, especially the detail of Washington political manouverings and rivalries. But it’s also a story of friendship against the odds and the compromises that have to be made between duty and personal relationships.
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The Spy Across the Water is the latest novel written by James Naughtie, and the third book following Will Flemyng's adventures. Ex-spy and ambassador in Washington DC, our story starts with the funeral of his brother Abel, who was killed in strange circumstances. Will is there not only to say goodbye, but to gather more information about how he died and who killed him.

After seeing somebody he might know at the funeral, Will starts to think about if that person might have extra information. To add complexity to the situation, as an ex-spy, Will can't start seeing eyes everywhere, and there is a rumour that the name of an important informant in Moscow has been leaked, something that would put that person in danger.

What we have is a really complex thriller, a story that will require most of our concentration, as there are several details that reveal more than you think at first. While saying this, I also have to admit that this book is super hooking, as once the story picked up, I found myself unable to put down this novel, especially once the story splits into several threads.
If Will's situation was complex, it only becomes even more complex, especially once he has to send Keane to Chicago, in order to meet an informant that could tell him more about Abel's death; and in Scottland, his other brother, Mungo, gets attacked as a sort of warning, putting even more pressure over the ambassador.

The historical situation is embodied in a perfect way, becoming an excellent reflection of how tense were those times. While all of those characters are just part of Naughtie's imagination, this novel could pass as historical fiction, due to how accurate is in some details.

Personally, I find The Spy Across the Water an excellent novel, with a plot that engages you from the first page, and takes you for a ride until the end. If you like spy-thriller stories, in the style of Le Carré, do yourself a favour and pick this book.
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I am a fan of Mr. Naughtie's spy/espionage novels.  I find them to be well written, unique in plotting, and reflect an author who has background in his subject matter. Though this is a stand-alone novel, I would recommend reading his previous novels on this same story line. Familiarity with his previous books will enhance the reading of The Spy Across the Water.  One observation, in this most recent offering, I did find that some of the family relationship issues took up a little too much space, and really did not contribute a great deal to the story.  Never-the-less, my positive opinion has not changed re-Mr. Naughtie's work.
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"The Spy Across the Water" by James Naughtie is a gripping thriller that takes the reader on a journey across the Scottish Highlands and beyond. The story follows the investigation of a suspicious death that could have serious international implications. The characters are well-drawn and the plot twists keep the reader guessing until the very end. Naughtie's writing is engaging and descriptive, bringing the stunning landscape of Scotland to life. At the same time, he weaves a complex web of intrigue and betrayal that will keep readers turning the pages. This book is a must-read for fans of political thrillers and anyone who loves a good mystery.
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If you like a good spy thriller then look no further, this author certainly knows what he is talking about. Set around 1985 after the bombing of The Grand Hotel in Brighton by the IRA. And just as Mikhail Gorbachev is in Moscow, a spy has got a good vantage point in Russia to report back to the British embassy in Washington DC but is he safe. Rumour has it that the name of the spy has been leaked. Do they pull him out or wait a little longer? How reliable is the informant.

Will Flemyng is an ex spy who is now an Ambassador in Washington DC. As the story begins he is at the funeral of his youngest brother Abel who had been shot in Chicago. Will is not only there for the funeral he also wants more information as to how he was killed and by whom. Working with him closely are Patrick Keane and secretary Lucy Pardowe. At the funeral Will sees someone he knows, and the reason he believes he is there is because he may have information. 

The plot is very complex and needs a great deal of concentration, as there are secret conversations in person, via the telephone, everything is meticulously planned, every meeting, every call. Not only is Will trying to find out what happened to Abel but he gets a call from the family home in Scotland to say his older brother Mungo and his friend have been attacked by two Irish men. They hadn’t gone there to kill them, they had gone on a fishing excursion as they were asking questions about Will. Is someone digging up his past? Whatever this isn’t good.

Keane is sent to Chicago to work undercover and see if he can get information about Abel’s death, he has been given a contact by Will, someone he trusts. But tells Keane to not ask too many questions. How will Keane do? Will they realise he is after information? 

I found this a complex read, needing full attention, as the story flits back and forth between characters and cities. It is well written and readers of spy fiction will love it for some reason I just couldn’t seem to engage. I did read it to the end though. As I got further in the pace picked up a little which drew me in a bit more. 

I would like to thank #netgalley and #HofZ_Books for an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest, fair and unbiased review.
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I was unsure what to expect as I had found the two previous books in the series unnecessarily opaque (see reviews on Goodreads). This was a considerable improvement. Based on real scenarios Naughtie weaves plots and intrigues that are all too credible. I found it hard not to imagine Alec Guiness as Flemyng. He takes no prisoners and the weakness and foibles of politicians in both London and Washington are ruthlessly exposed.
The atmospheric descriptions of the Scottish highlands are a delight and add much to the enjoyment of the book.
I wasn’t quite sure about the extent of emotional involvement described between the principals. Perhaps the message is that spies are real people like the rest of us.
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I was commissioned to review The Spy Across the Water by James Naughtie for please see the link to the site for the full review.
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Having enjoyed earlier books in this thriller series, I was keen to catch up with Will Flemyng's career.  

The novel is set in around 1985 when the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Gordievsky affair were two pivotal factors influencing UK policy at home and abroad, and Will is posted as HM's Washington Ambassador. His former career as a spy comes back with a vengeance, and given the vital strategic natures of two separate situations, he is forced to become more involved with  activities in the field than must be usual for an ambassador, at the same time as continuing his ambassadorial duties and coping with serious family issues. Luckily he has an able and trustworthy member of staff, Patrick Keane, working for him, and  I cannot help but wonder if readers of this series are being prepared for a change in the main protagonist as Will nears retirement.

Needless to say, the plot is quite involved and fast-moving, and this reader welcomed the author's customary beautifully descriptive forays into the Scottish Highlands when Will visits his old family home.
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I am not a big fan of spy novels but this book caught my attention.  This is the third of a series but can be read without reading the first two.  The two Flemyng brothers are reunited after the mysterious death of the youngest sibling in a cross fire in Chicago.  The oldest brother, now an Ambassador in Washington, seeks to find the answers as to who killed his brother with the assistance of his staff and his brother living in the Highlands of Scotland. (I loved the descriptions of that area).  A thriller with lots of plot twists, the book will keep you on edge until you are finished
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The three Flemyng brothers are the heart of The Spy Across the Water. Author James Naughtie does a very good job of laying out an intelligent tale.  Abel Flyming dies early on, but that isn't the end of him in the story as much is yet to be discovered. Mungo Flymyng is the heart of the story, but he is not a spy and offers opportunities to warm the story. But it is the main Flymng, Will, who is at the heart of things. He's a smart guy facing much pressure, but he thinks well and makes few mistakes. I enjoyed the novel.
Thanks NetGalley for the ARC.
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