In ‘The Midnight Swimmer’ Edward Wilson has has delivered a first-rate espionage novel. I am tempted to use the word thriller, but in truth this is not a book filled with thrills. What ‘The Midnight Swimmer’ does have is authenticity. Considering how poor the novels of some very popular John Le Carré wannabees are, I finding it amazing that this author is not more well known. On the strength of this book, he can be considered a true heir to the master. Not since Le Carré have I felt I was reading such a credible description of spying and cold-war skulduggery.
Wilson’s prose is sparse, at times almost too pruned down. The book occasionally feels like facts strung together by the thinnest thread of storytelling. It’s not that the story isn’t good, it’s just sometimes a bit hard to find. Due to Wilson’s style, I had thought that his characters were too emotionally detached, but as the novel’s denouement played out, I discovered that one or two characters had left such an impression it was painful to let them go. They had got under my skin without me realising; a sure sign of good writing.
The novel moves from Berlin just before the Wall was put up, to Cuba, after the election of J.F Kennedy. All sections ooze authenticity though I found the Cuban sections more satisfying than those set in Germany. The writing and resonance of the parts of the novel set in Havana reminded me of Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘The Lacuna’. I hadn’t realised that ‘TMS’ is Wilson’s third novel to feature British spy Will Catesby, and I think this is why the Berlin sections worked less well for me. The early chapters of ‘The Midnight Swimmer’ form a bridge between the previous two novels and the Cuban missile crisis. If you haven’t read the earlier books, it’s a bridge with the odd plank missing. The Midnight Swimmer does stand up on its own merit, but I imagine it is a more complete reading experience if you read the entire trilogy.
If the other two books are as good as this one, (and other reviews are very favourable), then this is series well worth investigating time and money in. The plot is intricate, plausible and never sensational. When reading ‘TMS’ you are given the impression that Wilson is a man in command of all the salient facts. Almost nothing in the novel is incidental, and the pace though slow to start, builds to an exciting sprint finish. ‘The Midnight Swimmer is everything a good spy novel should be – tense, politically astute and thought-provoking. It’s a first class espionage novel, written in the tradition of the master, and if you are fan of Le Carré, well worth checking out.