The Whispering Dead

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Pub Date 06 Dec 2022 | Archive Date 30 Nov 2022

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The past comes back to haunt MI6 secret agent Cordelia Hemlock in this spy thriller from Sunday Times bestselling author David Mark - "Top-level espionage fiction" (Booklist Starred Review)

Cordelia Hemlock is teetering on the verge of joining MI6 when she meets the enigmatic Walt, a high-ranking member of the Secret Intelligence Service, who tells her: They won't want you to do well. They won't ever trust you. They don't trust me and I'm one of them. She takes this as a challenge rather than a warning. She wants to protect the nation. Serve Queen and country. Who would turn down such a glorious opportunity?

Fourteen years later, Cordelia is desk-bound after finishing an undercover operation and going quietly mad with boredom. So when the call comes through on the top-secret Pandora line - so-called after the locked-box the telephone is kept in - she answers it.

It's Walt. No longer officially MI6, he still inhabits the murky world of intelligence, where information always comes with a price. He tells her he has a secret to share with her - and only her. And once she knows it, nothing will ever be the same again . . .

A follow-up to the critically acclaimed psychological thriller The Mausoleum, this is a twisty, page-turning tale of friendship and divided loyalties set against the dark, forbidding landscape of the rural Borderlands.

The past comes back to haunt MI6 secret agent Cordelia Hemlock in this spy thriller from Sunday Times bestselling author David Mark - "Top-level espionage fiction" (Booklist Starred Review)


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Featured Reviews

You don't associate David Mark with international espionage thrillers, but the author of the famed DS McAvoy series and other dark crime fiction has given us some excellent historical fiction (Anatomy of a Heretic) and even a mental health memoir (Piece of Mind). As a genre however, for me spy thrillers are something of a genre of the past, made almost redundant not just by the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, but by the internet. Who needs to send agents into the field nowadays when you can employ hackers and deploy drones?

There are exceptions to every rule and - again from a personal perspective - there are a few authors who keep the spy thriller relevant and exciting, managing to bring a contemporary feel to an old school of writing. In my limited reading in the genre, Mick Herron stands out with his Jackson Lamb/Slough House series, just about managing to keep one step ahead of the absurdity of modern day political and establishment affairs with flair and humour. Gerald Seymour too manages to blend in those absurdities of the new order of globalisation and commercialisation of crime and war with not yet extinct old school tie attitudes.

That long preamble is just to set the scene to say that David Mark, not unexpectedly, also succeeds in breathing life and a contemporary perspective onto a somewhat stale genre in The Whispering Dead and he does it also by straddling the past with the present. Because, as we all know, the sins of the past have a way of revisiting us in the present, and that's a theme that you will find in other books by this author. Here, his 'agents' if you want to describe Cordelia Hemlock and Felicity Goose that way (Flick is only an ordinary housewife), are very aged indeed in 2016, both in their 80s and about as far away from the popular image of spies as you can imagine. But my goodness they have a shocking and somewhat unpleasant story to tell.

And tell it they do to Paolo Fergus, a writer for a website exploring the activities of the intelligence agencies who has come upon some interesting information about the dubious activities of British Intelligence in Central America in the 1980s. He is pointed in the direction of the borderlands village of Gilsland, where Baroness Hemlock and Flick still reside, and he records their testimonies of what happened in this very place in 1982. Recruited into MI6 in 1968, Cordelia's career was almost derailed (potentially lethally) by reporting the involvement of British forces in crimes against humanity taking place in Guatemala and Belize. Not wishing to step on the toes of President Regan and his efforts to purge Communism from his back yard, her bosses seem to want to turn a blind eye to this, and unfortunately - as far as Cordelia and her Gilsland friend Felicity are concerned - that would appear to make any evidence and witnesses of it disappear.

I've said that you don't really expect David Mark to delve into such political affairs and international incidents, but he has been there before and very successfully in The Guest House. What is more surprising is that it's not in the first Cordelia Hemlock book The Burying Ground (aka The Mausoleum). Cordelia and Felicity do get involved in political secrets and power plays going on behind the scenes that seem to involve a military base in the area, but unless I am mistaken, there is no mention of Cordelia's recruitment and subsequent career in the secret service. I thought that maybe I had missed something, but after a quick scan back though the other book, I thought I'd better check with the author himself - he's very approachable on social media - who assured me that "Cordelia was subtly manoeuvred towards the secret service at the denouement of the first one", revealing that this was always the intended direction as he "always saw the whole book as being an origins story for Judi Dench's version of M". So there you go...

Really however, despite the venture into US Central America policy and the obviously entirely fictional imagining of the craven subservience of the British Intelligence in aiding their activities, the secret to David Mark's success in making The Whispering Dead relevant as an espionage thriller is that he is working on home ground, so to speak. You'll find him doing the typical things that David Mark does so well, delving as much into local character and history or assessing the impact that nefarious outside agencies have on small insular English communities. The key to that is having the story related from the perspectives and the very colourful nature and experience of two elderly English ladies of very different backgrounds. As ordinary people, they tend to react in a very different and perhaps more human way to extraordinary situations than other fictional secret service agents.

So, having clarified the author himself that this was the direction he always intended to take Cordelia Hemlock - and who can doubt him with that kind of naming of the character? - The Whispering Dead is all the more impressive for how it builds on the characters of Cordelia and Felicity Goose in The Burying Ground. Aside from the thrilling nature of the political secrets, revelations and violent attempts to cover it up, with the requisite complications of betrayal, double-dealing and ambiguity of never knowing the true nature of what you are dealing with, there are more human and universal concerns that make this a little more David Mark. Here it's not a glamorous game played by posh former public schoolboys, it's not about being on the side of the angels, "in the service of a greater good" or a self-serving power-trip; what matters are the little people caught up in it all. And for some of those concerned here there is the knowledge of what it is like to lose a son, and that makes troubles in far off lands feel much more relatable, real and relevant.

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David Mark’s THE WHISPERING DEAD (Severn House, 6 December 2022), is a nasty little gem of a spy novel that kept me captivated from beginning to end.

I really enjoyed Mark’s THE MAUSOLEUM from a couple of years ago, and THE WHISPERING DEAD continues the adventures of Cordelia Hemlock and Felicity Goose from that book. Whereas THE MAUSOLEUM started out as a regional British murder mystery before morphing into something much more sinister, THE WHISPERING DEAD is quite clearly a spy novel from the beginning. It opens in 2016 with Cordelia, a former Head of MI6, recalling a strange operation that went terribly wrong back in 1982. Cordelia, still finding her way as an Intelligence Officer in 1982, is tasked with meeting her old mentor, the now disgraced Walt, at Highgate Cemetery. Walt wants to expose the dirty going-ons in Guatemala, whereby the British and the Americans are supporting the local brutal dictatorship as a way of stopping the communists from gaining a foothold there. Her superiors want nothing to do with Walt, but Cordelia agrees to loan her place in the north of England for a debrief. It is a decision that gets her in trouble at work and puts her friends, John and Felicity Goose, in grave danger.

This is a very intelligent and quite gripping spy novel that smoothly goes through its paces as the plot weaves its way through several twists and betrayals to the violent ending. The story is told in alternating sections by Cordelia and Felicity, who for most of the book finds herself held captive in a remote farmhouse. This shifting viewpoint works well, and Mark skilfully gives each of the women their own distinctive voice, and uses the different perspectives to deepen the suspense. There is also considerable poignancy and subtlety in his descriptions of the personal lives of Felicity and Cordelia and the depth of their friendship, especially as it relates to their lives in 2016.

The other characters are also very well crafted, including the minor ones, and Mark fleshes them out in interesting ways. The story makes good use of its 1982 setting and there are some nicely described scenes, and some good action, towards the end. Unlike a lot of recent spy fiction it is a relatively slim book and the pacing is good for most of its length.

Interwoven into the story is interesting background material on international politics in 1982 and moving vignettes on the situation in Guatemala. Mark also raises still relevant issues about accountability and morality that add to the depth of the novel.

THE WHISPERING DEAD can be read as a stand-alone novel, but those who have read THE MAUSOLEUM will have greater appreciation of Cordelia’s situation and what she has gone through. A thoroughly enjoyable and moving spy story.

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I express my appreciation and thanks to NetGalley and Severn House for this riveting spy novel. I usually avoid books about espionage, but when I saw David Mark wrote it I was very interested in reading it. I only became aware of the author this year and have read many of his books since, including his police procedural series and his varied stand-alone thrillers. I find his stories dark and entertaining. The Whispering Dead is a book about betrayals and government wrongdoing with shocking subject matter, twists, suspense, and a violent ending.

Former spy Baroness Cordelia Hemlock and her dear friend, Felicity Goose, are telling their story in 2016 to an investigative reporter. Cordelia is now 80, Felicity is close to 90, and both women are longtime friends. Cordelia had been known by an assortment of aliases, and her final true identity while working for MI16 was Head of the agency under the nickname of M. They are describing to the reporter the story of an operation in 1982 that went horribly wrong.

Much earlier, during her vigorous physical and mental training to be accepted into the espionage field, Cordelia is told by her mentor Walt, a high-ranking Secret Intelligence officer, " They won't want you to do well. They won't ever trust you. They don't trust me, and I am one of them."

The world of espionage is far from the glamorous one that is sometimes portrayed. Tedious periods of inactivity may be broken by excitement and danger. If the spy survives, there is the satisfaction of a job well done. Working for the Queen and country involves many compromises, a pragmatic outlook, and laying aside one's conscience. What the country deems is in its best interest when forging and strengthening ties with other governments may be detrimental to masses of people elsewhere.

Weighing heavily on Walt's mind are the atrocities happening in Guatemala. President Reagan's government is funding and arming the Guatemalan government, whose military is committing genocide on its citizens. Thousands of people have disappeared and ended up in mass graves. America is supporting its ruling government as the best way to avoid a communist takeover, as in Cuba. The British government and its spy agencies feel it is essential to support America in its efforts to maintain friendship between Britain and America. One British official remarks that those being slaughtered are Mayans who are only 'savages.' Videos exist of acts of massacres of men, women and children, but reports by witnesses are ignored. This troubles Walt and also weighs on Cordelia's conscience.

Fourteen years later, in 1982, Cordelia is summoned by the now-disgraced Walt to meet in Highgate Cemetary. He seems to still be in Intelligence but working outside of official channels. He plans to expose the British involvement in Guatemala and asks to use Cordelia's abandoned country home. Cordelia requests that Felicity go to the house to remove some personal items before the meeting. Felicity is a quiet housewife with no interest in world affairs. She has no idea that Cordelia is a spy working for MI16. Her husband John has hinted at this by referring to Cordelia as 'Jane Bond.' John will drive her as his wife hates driving, although he is recovering from a kidney operation.

Upon arrival at the house, Felicity and John are attacked by strangers and injured. They do not understand what is happening or who these brutal people can be. A young Guatemalan woman attends to John's wounds. She ends up injured and locked in a room with Felicity and John, and shots are heard from an adjoining room. Cordelia has not yet arrived. On the train, she met a mysterious man on her way to the house. He knew who she was, handed her a Guatemalan cigarette, and demanded she gets off the train and go back home. She jumps off the train, sustaining injuries, steals a car and continues her journey. The car is followed, and she is forced off the road and tied up. She is determined to escape and get to the house as she fears her friends are in danger. Will she be able to save them, or are they already dead?

What happens next is very complicated and confusing. I found it challenging to follow, but Cordelia and Felicity were also slow to understand. There are armed men inside the house and also guarding the outside. There were a series of betrayals and double-crosses, and difficult for them to sort out who could be trusted. People they considered on their side might be planning to murder them, and perceived enemies were set on saving Cordelia's life and career. The ending was action-packed, bloody, violent, shocking, and exhilarating. To b published on December 9.

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Way back in 2019 I reviewed The Mausoleum, (now re-titled The Burying Ground) a stand-alone novel from David Mark; a beautifully conceived and well executed historical tale full of exceptionally well-drawn characters, with a tense and claustrophobic setting and a feel for sharp cruelty.

Now David Mark has brought back his two principal characters from that book, Cordelia Hemlock and Felicity Goose, in a novel that can easily be read as a stand- alone. Cordelia Hemlock rose through the ranks of the intelligence community to become Head of MI6. Now retired, she has gained her peerage and she and her long standing friend, Felicity Goose are talking over old times with an investigative reporter.

Felicity and Cordelia met in Gilsland, a small village just on the wrong side of the Scottish Border. Cordelia still keeps her large house in the area and Felicity and her husband John make sure it is kept in good condition when she is not there.

Cordelia reminisces about meeting her friend and mentor, Walt, who rose through the ranks of the intelligence service and guided her career. Told in the voices of Cordelia and Felicity, this is a reminiscence that is both violent and gripping, reaching back 34 years to the time when Gilsland played host to a team determined to uncover some dreadful truths.

David Mark’s novel highlights one of the most appalling and seldom discussed atrocities– the appalling genocide committed in Guatemala and the role of the British Government in supporting a murderous right wing dictatorship in that country. It is a deeply shameful episode in Britain’s foreign policy (though by no means the only one). In 1983, Britain had soldiers stationed in neighbouring Belize, a former UK colony. Politicians in Westminster and the public thought that the British army was out there to stop Guatemala invading Belize. In secret, however, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was enabling our troops to help the Guatemalan military dictatorship eliminate its opponents.

Based on real events, Mark takes the role of the intelligence services both in the UK and the US and spins them into an incredibly twisty and hugely compelling tale of deceit, duplicity, double dealing and gross moral turpitude. It is also a portrait of enduring friendship, betrayal and it demonstrates what having a moral core really looks like.

Verdict: David Mark paints strong and vivid characters with depth and feeling. His fascinating and horrific premise for this spy thriller is gripping and instructive and you can’t really ask for more than that. The contrast between the sleepy borders village of Gilsland and the Guatemalan atrocities is beautifully done and makes for a deeply dramatic scenario when the two come together in a final, violent, destructive clash. Highly recommended.

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David Mark's new novel is a stunning, offbeat spy thriller. Whilst innovatively stylish and original it retains David's trademark literary skills of razor-sharp characterization and crisp, concise dialogue. In fact, I thought the dialogue was exceptional with long, intense monologues delivered by Cordelia Hemlock and Flick Goose - two characters every bit as memorable as their names.
I will be oxymoronic in describing the period setting as the Cold War at its hottest. The political backdrop is one of treachery and lies (some things never change). I loved everything about this fast-paced, engrossing book. More please!

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‘So like I said, I was at the window, doing the pots.’

I read and enjoyed ‘The Mausoleum’ a few years ago, meeting the wonderfully named Felicity ‘Flick’ Goose and Cordelia ‘Cordy’ Hemlock as they first met. In this novel that opens in 2016, both women (Felicity is almost 90 and Cordelia is 80) are recounting the story of an undercover investigation in 1982 that went horribly wrong. Paolo Fergus, a reporter interviews them (separately) about British spy operations on the border between Belize and Guatemala. Cordelia, now retired as the head of MI6, tells Paolo the murky tale of spies and genocide, but states that she cannot be quoted.

The story unfolds in alternating chapters as Cordelia recalls a series of events that led to her offering her country house in the north of England as a temporary safe haven. Cordelia ‘phones Felicity to ask her to pick up a few personal things from the house (which is close to where Felicity lives) before the ‘guests’ arrive. But Cordelia did not realise that the ‘guests’ would already be in situ when Felicity and her husband John arrived.
Cordelia’s journey to her house where she intends to meet her ‘guests’ is eventful. Meanwhile, Felicity and John Goose are kept prisoner.

And, if you want to know what happened, and why, then you need to read this novel. Suffice to say that clandestine operations are often murky and driven by varying degrees of political expedience. There is plenty of action and betrayals to negotiate before an action-packed ending.

I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Severn House for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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This is a short spy thriller. It opens with Paolo Fergus, a reporter on the trail of British spy operations on the Belize/Guatemalan border in the 1980s. At that time Guatemala was run by a murderous dictator who murdered tens of thousands of Mayans, the native people of Guatemala. It is now 2016, and Paolo interviews the retired head of MI6, Cordelia Hemlock. She tells him a tale of spies and genocide, but tells him that she cannot be quoted.
I remember reading news stories about mass murders in Guatemala and the U.S. Government funding the Guatemalan military. I also read that Guatemala tried to steal all of part of Belize but was stopped by the British military.
This was a pleasant thriller that I read in 2 days. Thanks to Severn House for sending me this eARC through NetGalley. #TheWhisperingDead #NetGalley
One quote, opening paragraph: "The era's a joyless grey, cloudy as milk. There's no line where water meets sky,just a smudge as the slow-moving sea nerves softly into low, cloud -coliedsky. Drizzle greased the stones on this shingly, isolated beach; a near-invisible rain suspended in the chill air, misting a horizon the colour unnamed clay."
I have enjoyed 8 other books by David Mark, all crime mysteries. I rate this book 4 stars.

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Baroness Cordelia Hemlock is the retired once head of one of the Government's Secret Services. She had a marriage of convenience with Cranham a Tory M.P. He was a homosexual. They had two children neither fathered by him.
Cordelia has been reading an article by an investigative Journalist - Paolo Fergus about Belize. She remembers when she was involved in Guatemala with the Mayan population which was being murdered by the ruling government which was backed by the USA.
She invites Paolo for an interview, some of which must be off the record. She wants to celebrate the life of an old friend - Felicity ( flick ) Goose. She and her late husband John worked for Cordelia. She wants to reveal that flick is one of the bravest people. Flick is now bed-ridden and Cordelia cares for her.
The time in question is when Cordelia was a junior. She was the protege of Walt Renshaw. Walt was dismiissed from the Service, but he now contacts Cordelia asking for a safe house for a Mayan brother and sister who wants the West to know the murder that is going on in their country.
Cordelia suggest that they use the family home in the north between Carlise and the Borders. When Cordelia asks flick and John to get the house ready, she little realises the danger they will all be in.
What I like about this author is that despite a successful police fiction series he often writes a one off book which is gripping and keeps you reading. This is just such a book. Highly recommended.

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Cordelia Hemlock joined MI6 in the 1960s after losing her child because it was something to do. In 2016, after reading an article on Britain’s betrayal of an intelligence source from Guatemala she decides to meet with the reporter and provide the full story. She is now in her eighties and the retired head of MI6 and still friends with Felicity Goose, who had accidentally been involved in the event along with her husband. Felicity is now in her nineties and the two of them have quite a story to tell. Walter Renwick had been an influential member of MI6 at one time. In 1982 Cordelia received a call from him informing her that he had proof of the slaughter of Guatemalan peasants by special military forces who had been receiving training and support from America. Britain had turned a blind eye to what was happening in support of its’ ally. Cordelia insists on going through official channels. When no action is taken, Renwick arranges a plan of his own. He needs a safe place for witnesses to the atrocities and asks Cordelia for the use of her home in the country. Cordelia was unaware of the full extent of his plans and asked Felicity to prepare the house. What follows is a desperate race across England to save Felicity and her husband from the danger that Renwick has placed them all in.

David Mark first introduced Cordelia and Felicity in The Mausoleum and The Whispering Dead hints at their previous adventure. As an agent, Cordelia has confronted questionable decisions. While she works for Queen and country her actions are often directed by her moral compass. She would never put her friend in danger and must somehow find a way to protect her. Felicity and her husband are devoted to each other but secrets come to light when they are confronted with their perilous situation. While David Mark’s story is fiction, there are elements of actual events woven into the narrative that can be found with a little research. There are several intense scenes, there are action scenes and there is a storyline that will stay with you long after the last page. I would like to thank NetGalley and Severn House for providing this book for my review.

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The Whispering Dead by David Mark.
Cordelia Hemlock is teetering on the verge of joining MI6 when she meets the enigmatic Walt, a high-ranking member of the Secret Intelligence Service, who tells her: They won't want you to do well. They won't ever trust you. They don't trust me and I'm one of them. She takes this as a challenge rather than a warning. She wants to protect the nation. Serve Queen and country. Who would turn down such a glorious opportunity?
Really did enjoy this book. Great story and characters. 4*.

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