Somewhere in John Altman’s brisk new World War II thriller, A Game of Spies, is the possibility of a terrific novel. Every element is there: spy versus spy, move and counter-move, loyalty and betrayal, English and Nazis, and, to top it all off, the terror of the initial stages of the final solution. The writing is crisp. The wooden, expository dialogue of his first novel, A Gathering of Spies, has been excised. But the novel fails to move beyond genre to literature.
The novel’s epigram poses an interesting question from the historian Ernest May, “…if the Allies in May 1940 were in most respects militarily superior, were not badly led, and did not suffer from demoralization (not yet, at least), then what accounts for Germany’s six-week triumph [the invasion of France]?” The novel sets out to offer a hypothesis as to why and how Germany was able to leverage its weaker forces and overrun France. The Allies failed to stop the Germans because there was a failure of intelligence, Altman proposes, and his novel provides a fascinating what if.
British MI6 has placed two agents in Germany, the dissolute, potential traitor William Hobbs and his recruit (and conquest) Eva Bernhardt to search out any information regarding Germany’s plans. Unfortunately, Hobbs bumbles in his attempt to sell himself as a false double agent. The German’s do not trust him fully, and his escape is delayed. Still Hobbs kills his guard and escapes into the chilly Berlin night. Meanwhile, Eva Bernhardt digs into British news clippings for items that may be useful to the German propaganda ministry in her new identity. She keeps to herself, refusing offers for weekend dates, until she meets Otto Klinger—a man desperate and well-connected. She seduces Klinger. Klinger provides her with the secret word, “Schlieffen.” What did Klinger mean by this? But will she be able to make it to her rendezvous point in time?
Altman handles the ensuing cat and mouse game adroitly. A new villain joins the chase, a Nazi named Frick who had been a SS commander in Poland in charge of rounding up and killing Polish Jews. Frick dogs Hobbs, distracted only by the ghost of a defiant Jewish girl. What Altman doesn’t do well, though, is make you care about the characters. Too much is left offstage, in flashback, or in internal reveries. He doesn’t develop characters so much as create them, which gives the novel the depth of a long film treatment. Also, Altman has a tendency to get over his head a bit, such as his imagined conversation between Churchill and Chamberlain.
A Game of Spies should have been a better novel than it is. While good thrillers are always welcome (and it is certainly that), the history Altman works with deserves more than thin characters and clever plotting. Perhaps I expect too much from someone described by Jack Higgins as a “major new talent.” Or maybe he expects too little. Either way, A Game of Spies lives up to its title, but doesn’t surpass it.