Boyd wanted this book from 2012 to be a thriller, and in this he succeeds. However, thrillers require misdirection and coincidence, which are extensive here. And they are not a mark of literature. The result is a highly readable work but not as serious a work of fiction as are Boyd’s other works.
The story begins in Vienna, moves to London, then briefly to the World War I battlefront in France and to Geneva, and then finally returns to London. The hero is Lysander Rief, an actor, who travels to Vienna before the war to resolve a personal, psychological—well, sexual—problem. There, he encounters several characters who, during the war, will involve him in the search for a traitor who is revealing military secrets to the Germans. He is obliged to work with these British officials because earlier they had helped him escape from Viennese authorities after he had been falsely accused of rape.
The Vienna scenes are the most effective in the book, because we are not involved yet in an espionage work, but rather with the characters. The author is merely setting the foundation of what is to come. The battlefront scene is also effective, but brief. The remainder of the book, set around London, sacrifices a valid atmosphere for the sake of the espionage thriller, as Rief’s search and the reader’s suspicions shift from one character to another.
Boyd uses two methods to tell his tale. One is a straight third-person narrative. The other is a first person narrative in a journal Rief is keeping. It works within the book, because his Vienna psychiatrist has suggested it; but it is not clear to me why the author resorts to this different viewpoint. I can see it only as symbolic of the contrasting facets of the espionage world. That is, Rief is not sure of where truth, or where reality, lies in his mind as well as in this unique world of espionage.
At the end, Boyd chooses not to explain matters clearly, perhaps also consistent with the espionage world. He suggests but does not spell out the role of Rief’s mother, nor the role of the three military men who oversee his search for the traitor. We know in general what has happened, who the traitor is, but the details are not clear. Did the traitor mail the letters to himself about military details, and then code the content—just to suggest someone else was working over him? Why were his superiors so accepting of Rief’s initial misleading identity of the traitor? And why did they accept Rief’s final revelation, when his conclusion was more theory than proof?
Boyd apparently sought to give depth to his hero, by first giving him a sexual problem, and then by describing his interesting encounters with three women. One. Hettie. falsely accuses him of rape, and another, Florence, shoots him (in the most unbelievable surprise moment), while fellow actress Blanche beaks their engagement and then reconsiders. It is Hettie who is the most complex character, but that complexity seems somewhat forced. She becomes less real as her emotions change and she keeps contradicting herself.
The title comes from the climactic scene, in which Rief waits at dawn to encounter the actual traitor. Even there, however, Boyd deliberately confuses the reader, when Rief seem to be distracted by the first man he encounters. And like in many an espionage tale, Boyd has Rief turn a significant character, Rief’s uncle, into a surprise accomplice to help save him.
To sum up, this is a fast-paced work that does not pretend to be literature. And so, it is a disappointment in terms of the author’s past work. But as a thriller, it earns high marks. Even if it is also overly complex. That is, while we are in suspense because we do not see where the action is headed, some of this suspense is achieved through deception, and through coincidence. Too much coincidence, in fact.
In addition, because the reader does not understand the perspectives, the motives, of the various characters around Rief—are they friends or enemies of England?—the characters themselves lack depth. Yes, it builds suspense, but it is a handicap in every thriller, and here we are uncertain about nearly all the major characters. About Rief’s mother, about Hattie, about the friendly woman spy who shoots him, and about the three military officers who are overseeing his search for the traitor. Only his uncle and his psychiatrist seem to be what they purport to be.
Perhaps the main handicap in terms of being literature is that Rief is continually trying to figure out where the other characters stand, where are their loyalties, and is his safety compromised by what he is doing with them. Whereas, to be literature, Rief should be concentrating on trying to figure himself out. Does he have psychological problems with women? Does he have mixed loyalties because he is half Austrian? Is he troubled by the ethics or morality of his assignment. Does he accept that any conduct is valid because he is acting under orders and it is for the security of his country?
I will continue reading Boyd, but do wonder what level of literature he wishes to achieve. This book seems to strive for popularity rather than consideration as serious art. It does have some texture, however: British bureaucracy, pre-War Vienna, and London society.
But it is the characters who should have the greatest texture, the greatest complexity—both in terms of the plot and in their own individual psychology. Hettie’s internal contradictions are not enough; and she is too obvious, in any event. On the other hand, the British officials appear to accept Rief’s explanation only because it is the most convenient. While Blanche resolves her situation with Rief too easily, a nd Rief’s own acting career doesn’t matter to me. (August, 2013)