THE MIDNIGHT SWIMMER by EDWARD WILSON
This is the first novel I’ve read by Edward Wilson. It won’t be the last. Written in 2011 it is a stylish spy thriller set in the early 1960s and focuses on the build up to the Cuba Crisis.
As this was part of my master’s dissertation – way back in 1969 – I was immediately interested. I’ve always maintained a keen interest in the Crisis, particularly as fresh material became available after the Soviet Union collapsed and as Western documents were declassified . This book answers at least one of the questions that long puzzled observers – why did Kruschev take the gamble to seek to install nukes in Cuba. Back in the Sixties the assumption was that he was by nature a gambler and that his rhetoric about “burying” the West necessitated him taking risks. His great agricultural plan – the “virgin lands” – had flopped and, faced with growing economic problems at home, the reality of the Missile Gap in the USA’s favour, and the growing disapproval of the Politburo, the common assumption was that he felt he had no option but to gamble.
The novel has an interesting slant on this based on actual events which were only finally confirmed in the Glasnost era of the late Eighties. I won’t reveal it as it would be too much of a spoiler to do so but it certainly casts Kruschev’s actions in a different light .The book also advances a completely fictitious answer (I think) to another of the questions, but again I will not spoil the enjoyment of readers by revealing it. There’s a fascinating interweaving of known fact and real personalities of the era in the story which hang together well and, for me at any rate, at least pose the question “Could it have been like this?” No more can be asked of any work of historical fiction or “faction.”
The book is the third of a series (five to date) featuring a British intelligence agent, Catesby, who, together with his boss, Bone, must tread a delicate line between double dealing and betrayal at a time when suspicions abounded between the CIA and MI6 about possible traitors even as the international situation teetered on the very brink of nuclear conflict. One critic has commented on an earlier Wilson novel as showing governments and their secret services as “cynically exploitative and utterly ruthless.” The same is certainly true here. The action moves between Britain, the USA, East Germany, and Cuba as tension mounts. There are conflicts of conscience. The book’s blurb notes: “The author poses the fundamental question that few spy novelists answer: What is the greater crime? Betraying your country or betraying the person you love?” The blurb could have chosen to add: “Betraying your country or acting as you saw fit to help save humanity?”
Edward Wilson was born in the USA and served with US Special Forces in Vietnam where he was decorated. He subsequently wrote what has been described as the best novel about the Vietnam War, “A River in May” published in 2002, when he was in his mid -50s. He left the USA for Europe in the seventies, eventually settling in Britain in 1976, renounced his US citizenship in 1983, becoming a teacher and full time writer. He is a socialist. The fifth book featuring Catesby, “A Very British Ending,” was published in April 2016.
I would highly recommend the book, and, on this evidence, the writer.