The Madness of July by James Naughtie

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The Madness of July by James Naughtie

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Category: Thrillers
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: BBC Radio 4's Jim Naughtie proves he's as good at writing novels as he is at journalism and broadcasting and that IS good! Twisted, Machiavellian and well-plotted, his debut thriller mixes a le Carre-type panache with a dash of House of Cards.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 350 Date: February 2014
Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 978-1781856000

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A dead body is found in a Houses of Parliament broom cupboard on a hot 1970s summer day. A sinister enough event normally but for Foreign Office Minister Will Flemyng it heralds greater concerns. The fact the deceased has Will's phone number in his pocket triggers a series of events that not only tests his loyalty to work, country and family but will take Will from the everyday political cut and thrust to his old job. The job he hoped he'd walked away from: spying.

I have an admission to make: James Naughtie's Scottish burr has been waking my husband and me for years but there's nothing iffy about it – honest Guv! Jim is a regular presenter/broadcaster on Radio 4's daily breakfast news Today programme. In fact with decades of political journalism on his CV he would be just the person to write a political thriller, as long as he has the artistic leaning. The good news is that he doesn't only lean like a pro, but demonstrates a considerable talent to go with it.

The first thing you'll notice (between metaphorical nail biting) is the language. This is a rare thing: a spy novel that can maintain excitement while employing moments of mellifluous phrasing that almost melt on the tongue and demand to be read aloud.

The novel takes place over a long weekend in a month when there isn't usually much going on in Parliament as it slowly winds down towards the summer recess. However, we fall right into the action on meeting Will as we're drawn into his life and increasing fears.

When I say 'action', I don't mean people running after each other shouting and shooting to a soundtrack of speeding sports cars. In The Madness Jim presents us with something that's a lot harder to pull off. Our compulsion to turn pages is fuelled by sheer intrigue as Will digs beneath the veneer of respectability on both sides of the Atlantic while he manipulates and is manipulated in a style reminiscent of John le Carre's best. The era helps a lot too.

We may not live in a transparent society now but the 1970s was a world in which Berlin is still divided, the Cold War is still pretty frigid and 'friends' is a euphemism for practitioners of espionage as well as a social designation. It's also the decade in which Mr N started work in political journalism so it probably sticks in his mind for those and many other reasons.

Indeed the period detail fascinates without slowing anything down. For instance I don't know how involved political wives are these days but it had never dawned on me how essential they were in days gone by. They weren't just decorative accessories (a demeaning thought, but I bet some then ascribed to the idea) but in many ways becoming complicit in order to advance the other half's career. Will's wife is definitely not averse to helping out surreptitiously where possible.

It's also a clever idea to provide Will with American brothers. (The way the familial nationality difference is explained is seamless while providing another layer of contortion.) As readers we then have feet in both camps as Will becomes more and more conflicted between what he wants to do and what, increasingly, the prevailing tide is forcing him towards.

If I was going to be picky, I would ask for a cast list at the front of the book as I took a while to come to terms with who is in which governmental position. That may just be me though.

Talking of just me… Certain critics who are more experienced than I have commented on the lack of parliamentary procedure and the parties' identity in the novel as well as a perceived diversion from the structure of a conventional thriller. Without decrying those who know more than I do, to be honest I didn't notice the latter and the former two points don't matter to me (nor I suspect to many readers) as long as it feels authentic and it's a cracking good story. These are the factors that count and are definitely present. Therefore I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward eagerly to James Naughtie novel number two.

Thank you to Head of Zeus for providing us with a copy for review.

Further Reading: If this appeals, then you'll also love A Delicate Truth by John le Carre about another government employee who has to return to the past he thinks is well behind him.

Buy The Madness of July by James Naughtie at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Madness of July by James Naughtie at

Buy The Madness of July by James Naughtie at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Madness of July by James Naughtie at


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Margaret Wilde said:

Thank you for an enticing review.