Wednesday, April 3, 2013


Lysander Rief's sexual dysfunction draws him to a psychotherapist in Vienna in 1913.  There he meets Hettie Bull, an enigmatic artist who seduces him and then charges him with rape.  A couple of equally sinister British diplomats provide asylum and offer him a chance to escape and return home to London before his case comes to trial.  He later finds that they expect recompense, in the form of espionage, related to breaking a secret code and identifying a mole.  Why Rief?  Well, his career as an actor has rendered him a master of disguise and subterfuge.  His mission begins in the wartime trenches, where he develops another mental issue—insomnia, fueled by guilt when he sees the faces of two men just before his grenade annihilates them.  Once he's out of the trenches, danger lurks in every dark corner, and every character is under suspicion, including Rief's mother.  The plot is twisty and engaging but never feels as serious as its subject matter.  There's no personal conflict here, and Rief's moral compass is murky.  The narration alternates between third person and Rief's first-person journal, called "Autobiographical Investigations."  I thought that the author could have made better use of the third-person sections by offering a little more insight into what makes Rief tick or by doing just the opposite—making him more inscrutable.  Instead, the two types of narration are virtually seamless and therefore not really necessary.  In any case, Rief is the type of spy that could carry a series of books—an everyman with a knack for deception.

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