The Spider of Sarajevo by Robert Wilton

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The Spider of Sarajevo by Robert Wilton

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Robert Wilton extracts another story from the files of the Comptroller General for Scrutiny and Survey's office. This time (topically enough) it's an espionage thriller from the days when Europe teetered on the precipice of World War I. Fascinating history, exciting narrative and a wonderfully ripping (true) yarn!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: June 2014
Publisher: Corvus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1782391913

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Four enterprising free-thinking people are invited to speak to the military in London: James Cade (fiercely independent businessman), David Duval (ladies' man and occasional cad), Fiona Hathaway (a young woman too intelligent to squander in marriage) and Ronald Ballentyne (anthropologist and Balkans expert). It's spring 1914 and their military hosts are actually recruiting spies on behalf of the Comptroller General for Scrutiny and Survey. The four think that they're serving their country and they are, but not in the way they think: they're bait. They are the flies that the high-ups hope will lead British intelligence to the anonymous phantom figure that is the Spider of Sarajevo.

If anyone ever tells you that high level civil servants are boring, point them towards Robert Wilton. My favourite former Private-Secretary-to-the-Secretary-of-State-for-Defence has delved once again into the files of the defunct government department of the Comptroller General for Scrutiny and Survey and has once again proven his unboringness with panache.

This time Robert has selected political intrigue that leads to the assassination of Emperor Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. In doing so he brings us one of the many war centenary related books out at the moment but with a twist.

Even in the preface notes we realise that Robert has a way of communicating his careful research in a totally engaging way. We all know that the assassination led to WWI, but he explains to us why (something I'd never understood before) in just one paragraph. Once the novel hits, his explanatory gifts mix satisfyingly with an imagination that augments logically. The result? Hist-fict heaven.

The four rookie spies are all historical figures and, between them, conveniently relate the pre-war state of Europe to us from varying locations. Miss Hathaway shows us the German attitude as she stays with a feisty lass who also happens to be an aristocratic engineer with a penchant for important house guests. Ballentyne goes to the Balkans which (in common with the author) is an area he knows and loves. Duval has a roaming brief (to match his eye!) that will eventually take him to Russia and, meanwhile, Cade is doing business in Turkey.

All four totally disparate individuals are overseen by the deliciously eccentric and just as real Valentine Knox. Indeed, Knox is the kind of Englishman who, even out of uniform, could (if he wanted to) take on the world armed only with an umbrella and a rolled-up copy of the Times, not to mention a great sense of humour.

We know that Franz Ferdinand will die as a result of a student's bullet and a driver who didn't realise the official route had changed. However, this novel tries to unpick the conspiracies that were flying around at the time and does so with style. We're not only fascinated by the information, we become involved enough to be swept towards the climax accompanied by our accelerating heart rates and nails that become more ragged by the minute.

Robert doesn't only rely on excitement though. Half the fun is the way he relates the way in which the power brokers of the time propagate and encourage expedient theories. On the surface these have nothing to do with war but can be turned to their advantage. Exhibit one is the contemporary (German) idea that Germans have a lot in common with Muslims. This becomes part of their argument when Germany seeks to enlist Albania to their cause.

The blurb on Robert's website screams out If you only read one novel about the Great War this year, make it this one. While hoping you read more than one as there's some great stuff out for the centenary, if you could only read one, for once book blurb has a point.

Thank you so much, Corvus, for providing us with a copy for review.

Further Reading: If you've enjoyed this you'll also enjoy Robert's delve back into the files from the English Civil War in Traitor's Field. If you would rather continue reading about the Great War, we recommend No Man's Land: Writings From A World At War by Pete Ayrton (editor), an anthology of short stories centered on that particular conflict. You might also enjoy The Spice Box Letters by Eve Makis.

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