Post cold-war spy novels have all been grappling with the fundamental "what now?" question that arose following the collapse of the Soviet Union. This first of a new series is very much part of that stocktaking, as a British intelligence agent is sent to track down a former colleague who's gone rogue. Simon Abelard is a mixed-race Welshman from Cardiff's mean Tiger Bay streets, and the token darkie in his section. His colleague Julian has been putting his covert skills to work for drug dealers, and has gone missing after diverting around $9 million into a Swiss bank account. James uses this plot to make heavy weather of how in the post-Cold War era, spies have nothing worthwhile to do and are thus more susceptible to the lures of the almighty dollar.
This is a somewhat shaky setup-spies have always been tempted by fiduciary inducements, and have always been liable to run their own games on the side. James doesn't present any new twists on this theme and without any new ideas to propel the narrative, it simply becomes a very elaborate game of who's conning who, as a bevy of Simon's higher-ups get involved in the case. Indeed, the majority of the suspense comes not from the chase for Julian, but from Simon's uncertainty as to who in the large cast of bizarre secret service muckity-mucks is corrupt and who the nasty men also after Julian are. Eventually, of course, a woman gets involved, only heightening the conventionality of the proceedings. Everyone speaks in code, doublespeak, and innuendo (except for Simon's delightfully straight-talking mother), but it rarely feels real or even probable. Fortunately, everything is laid out in a visceral style that really captures the grimy side-street hotels and cold-hearted sides of London and Paris. It's the kind of book that lets itself be read, but by the end one is left with a bit of a "so what" feeling. I'm very unlikely to read the sequel, A Man's Enemies.