If you enjoy a good, old-fashioned spy thriller and if your list of favourite thriller-writers includes such names as Jeffrey Archer, John Le Carre and John Buchan, you will enjoy this novel. Depending upon your age, you may find it nostalgic, too, for it takes place in Spring 1968, when the world seemed to be going mad. The Cold War was in danger of heating up. It was the year of the Prague Spring and the second Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. It was the year in which Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated. It was also the year in which the nascent Troubles in Northern Ireland began to cause the British Government serious concern; troops were sent in the following year. There were strikes, demonstrations and confrontations with the authorities in many countries, especially in France, where action by students and workers temporarily halted the advanced, technology-based economy and at one point it seemed that President de Gaulle's government must fall. Paris was seething with would-be revolutionaries and spies. Volcanic violence was about to erupt. It was a genuinely exciting moment to be there.
- James Naughtie
James Naughtie's novel Paris Spring is set in Paris in early 1968, but it is not “about” les evenements de mai. The evolving political, and deteriorating security, situations form the backdrop to the personal drama of William Flemyng, ostensibly a diplomat at the British Embassy, but really a member of the Secret Intelligence Service (the SIS or MI6). Flemyng has previously served behind the Iron Curtain and his past catches up with him one day when he unexpectedly encounters a Cold War opponent on the metro.
It soon becomes clear that others are at risk, apart from Will: his family is threatened with ruin; his close relationship with his brother Mungo is placed under strain; his friends and colleagues are endangered and Will himself faces the possibility of exposure, leading at the very least to the end of his MI6 career and at worst to his murder. His friendships and his love-life are subjected to intolerable pressure. I will not spoil readers' pleasure by saying more, except that this is a rollercoaster of a novel.
Naughtie's descriptions are brilliant. Your reviewer worked for seven years in Paris and can vouch for their authenticity: Paris comes sharply to life with all its grandeur, charm, vitality and raucous politics. His descriptions of other places – Edinburgh, for instance – are equally good. (Oh for the days when you could still hail a taxi inside, or drive into, Waverley Station.) His characters are credible and sharply portrayed.
The slight downside is that we know - although Will Flemyng could not have known – that the Paris Spring was destined to fizzle out. There was no revolution and no-one was killed. The strikes and violence would simply die, like a camp-fire in a thunderstorm. In the French general election of June 1968 the Gaullists and their allies would be returned to office with an even larger majority and a strong mandate to reimpose law and order. But at the time it seemed to be “a damned close-run thing”.
James Naughtie, while new to fiction-writing, is hardly unknown. He presented Today on BBC Radio for twenty-one years, is a special correspondent for BBC News and has written a number of books on politics and music. His first novel, The Madness of July, to which Paris Spring is a “prequel”, was published to critical acclaim in 2014. He writes with an experienced journalist's immediacy and accuracy.