Wednesday, September 18, 2013

24. Death of a Thin-skinned Animal by Patrick Alexander

[I'm actually writing this review on Jan 4th, 2014.  I finished the book sometime in the fall of 2013 and then only read 2 other books for the rest of the year.  All to be explained in my year-end wrap-up.]

I picked this book up at a closing-down sale at a used bookstore on Broadway in the Kitsilano district in Vancouver late this summer.  It's a 1976 espionage thriller about a spy who was sent on a mission to assassinate an African dictator, who got doublecrossed and sent to jail.  In the ensuing years, Britain decides that it must make friends with this dictator.  The spy then escapes and decides to carry out his mission.  The story takes place in London from the point of view of the people working in the agency (and in particular the handler who sent the spy on the original assassination mission) while the dictator is visiting and they learn that the spy is making his way back to England to complete his mission.  It's a great premise, with a nice structure of the current cat and mouse game and a slow unravelling of the captured spy's backstory.  Right up until the end, Alexander succeeds in making this premise live up to its potential.  The anxiety of the spymasters, the politicians and the police involved is very satisfying to the reader, as you know they were all involved in some way or another with the betrayal.  The portrayal of all the various players is also rich, especially the educated, amoral and decadent dictator.  Where it bogs down is in the love story, which, as is so often the case in British stories from this period, is overly pessimistic and faux-modern (in the sense that everyone acts like they are so modern but still follow strict gender and class roles).  British upper class men were such unter-mensch losers in this period (same annoying patheticness that dogs Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy).  So of course we have to have a forcedly ironic downbeat ending of an otherwise cool story.  Despite my harping on it, this was a good read and I would definitely pick up something else by him.