Two often intriguing, sometimes thrilling, page-turning plot lines interweave in Mitch Silver’s debut novel In Secret Service. One concerns main character Amy Greenberg’s inheritance of a strange lockbox containing an unpublished Ian Fleming manuscript. The second is of Fleming’s efforts to discover the truth behind Edward VIII’s abdication from the throne; his wife, Wallis Simpson’s, role in it; and how he planned for the truth to be one day revealed by either his friend Raymond Greenberg or Raymond’s granddaughter, Amy.
Even almost five decades after Fleming finished the memoir-styled manuscript entitled “Provenance,” the secrets contained within it are still worth killing and dying for in the eyes of many. In fact, the secrets contained in the manuscript are so worth keeping hidden that they are behind the death of Princess Diana, according to this conspiracy-laden book, though they deal with people and events that date to the WWII era. Mitch Silver’s success, or lack of it, in relating Diana’s death to the possible sympathizing and collaboration with the Nazis by Edward and Wallis is key to the reader deciding if the novel itself succeeds or fails. I am of a mixed mind about this, thinking that the author tries a bit too hard to tie the abdication to Diana’s death. The basic story is good enough to succeed fairly well without any mention of Princess Diana Spencer at all. Still, I found the conspiracy theory interesting, if stretched too far to fit in with the plot.
The first plot line involves Amy’s attempts to finish reading the manuscript and make it back from Ireland alive to her fiancee, Scott Brown, in Boston. Out of the blue, she receives a mysterious letter from a Milo Macken, “the Vice-President of Private Banking, Rand Bank Group.” It informs her that, due to her grandfather’s death, she is now “the holder of record of Box 1007, Ansbacher Bank,” and that she needs “to remove all goods and valuables from said box by 15 May 2005,” since the bank has been sold. Any valuables not removed from the various boxes, the letter says, will be sold “in public auction.” Curious, and already planning to travel to Ireland to view the “explicit”,
a type of “credit page” that an Irish bookseller claims to have of the Book of Kells, she claims her inheritance. Little does she know that by doing so she will set off a series of events leading to yet further deaths and attempts on her own life.
The second plot line is told via Fleming’s manuscript. Ian, the godson of Sir Winston Churchill, tracks down two torn halves of an incriminating letter sent from Edward to “Herr Hitler.” It takes him years, and he has to utilize a lot of the sorts of skills Bond himself might have used, if he were real. For instance, to find out what is in a safety deposit box owned by the double agent working for Russia, Anthony Blunt, Fleming replaces fire sprinkler heads in a bank with miniature Minox cameras. To get into Blunt’s box, he uses specially made devices that look like cigarettes but have wicks which cause the “cigarettes” to melt and form into the shapes of whatever mold they’re placed into - in this case, keys for Blunt’s safety deposit box.
Comparisons can’t help but be drawn between Mitch Silver’s use of an unpublished Fleming manuscript, acting as an epistolary plea to Amy to one day reveal the truth, and Elizabeth Kostova’s use of epistles in her bestselling novel The Historian. I liked Kostova’s book but feel that the epistolary style is not the best one to build up and maintain a sense of suspense. I read it, I enjoyed it, but I kept on reading more because I wanted to know her take on the Dracula story. Whether she succeeded or failed in building up and maintaining suspense was of secondary importance to me.
In Secret Service, on the other hand, interested me with both the plotline of Amy Greenberg trying to escape and the Ian Fleming one. I would have preferred more of a Bond-related story, but “Provenance” worked for me as a method to move the plot along and reveal secrets of the Royal Family better than, in my opinion, the use of epistles in The Historian does. Both authors do a decent job with their use of epistles, but making letters or memoirs that are similar to letters take the burden of carrying along the plot is asking a lot of this method of narration.
One part of In Secret Service that I liked quite a bit is when Amy and Scott are chased through several of the Yale’s many libraries in Boston. Anyone who is a bibliophile (or who just likes good chase scenes in literature) should appreciate the chase scenes that carry Amy and Scott from the Sterling Memorial Library to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. It’s easy to tell that the author has been to each of the libraries and has a deep love for literature himself, which enhances the realism of his tale for the reader. I recommend this book for Silver’s managing to accomplish the difficult tasks of both writing an exciting, page-turning thriller and incorporating an “unpublished manuscript” of Ian Fleming’s into the plot. I’m looking forward to reading more from Mitch Silver in the years to come.