"The Company of Stangers"
(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie SEP 4, 2005)
Award-winning British author Robert Wilson's The Company Of Strangers is a powerful, epic thriller which combines espionage, history and political intrigue. The novel also tells the poignant personal stories of a man and a woman, both spies - ostensibly for opposite sides, whose lives become forever intertwined after their meeting in WWII Lisbon.
Captain Karl Voss, a young officer in the Abwehr, the German military intelligence organization, had studied physics at Heidelberg University before the war and showed great promise for a brilliant career. In January of 1943, he was well aware that Nazi Germany was failing in its efforts to conquer the world. His beloved brother was recently killed at Stalingrad, and his father, General Heinrich Voss, had been forced into retirement because he refused to obey orders to kill all Jews and partisans encountered in the Russian campaign. Karl is recruited by like-minded, disillusioned Army officers to become a double agent - an enemy of the Nazi state, but a loyal defender of Germany. His job is to go to Lisbon as the German Legation's military attache and security officer. There he will make contact with representatives of the British Secret Intelligence Service to negotiate a separate peace, excluding the Russians, whose invasion does not bode well for the German people. Stalin had stated at the Teheran Conference that up to a hundred thousand German officers would have to be executed, and that he would need four million German slaves to rebuild Russia. Unfortunately, shortly after Voss' arrival in Portugal, the Abwehr was dissolved and its functions taken over by Heinrich Himmler.
Twenty year-old Andrea Aspinall, a talented Oxford educated mathematician, has a facility for languages also. She is fluent in Portuguese, her deceased father's native tongue, and also in German. At university she is recruited and trained by the British Secret Intelligence Service and sent to Lisbon. Her cover name is Anne Ashworth and she works as a secretary for a Shell Oil executive, another British agent, translating German scientific documents into English for the Americans. That's her day job. Anne's living quarters are with a wealthy Irish businessman, Patrick Wilshere, and his wife, a Portuguese woman of noble birth. No lover of Great Britain, Wilshere is suspected of selling wolfram and raw diamonds to the Germans, and doing all in his considerable power to help the Nazis win the war. Anne, in a most dangerous environment, is to obtain as much pertinent information as possible to assist the Allies in their "endgame."
In July, 1944, Lisbon is a city of spies. It is probably the only place in war-torn Europe where all sides are able to meet on equal grounds. Yet, behind polite facades, a bitter war is being waged. Portugal was extremely important economically to both Axis and Allied Powers, because of the mineral wolfram. After the Allies landed in Normandy, all the wolfram mines were closed. However, there remained a vital trade in industrial diamonds, used to produce the machinery necessary to construct the German rockets that were bombarding London. Frightening rumors were circulating about Hitler's secret weapon which would win the war for the Third Reich. It was feared that with new German technology, the rockets might end-up carrying atomic warheads.
In this chilling and paranoid environment, it is almost impossible to imagine two dedicated agents, one Axis, one Allied, meeting and falling in love.
The novel is divided into three parts. The first is in wartime Lisbon. The second part is set during the height of the Cold War in London and East Berlin. And finally, the surprising denouement, with glasnost and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, brings all loose ends together - and closes the circle on all that began so many years before.
Mr. Wilson is a writer of rich imagination and extraordinary narrative ability. He is obviously fascinated with the "spy culture," and believes we are all inherently spies, some even to the point of addiction. We all possess secrets and are fascinated by the secrets of others. Perhaps this is why the book is so thrilling - it is filled with enigma. All the characters are developed with imagination and subtlety. The author takes Andrea/Anne on a life journey from late adolescence, through her middle years to old age, and does it in a most credible and unusual way. He won the CWA Gold Dagger Award for A Small Death in Lisbon, which I read and thought brilliant. The Company of Strangers is no less so. One of the most unique and compelling novels I have read in this genre.
- Amazon readers rating: from 32 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
Jefe Javier Falcón Seville Series:
- The Blind Man of Seville (2003)
- The Vanished Hands (2004; released as The Silent and the Damned in UK; 2005 in US)
- The Hidden Asssassins (November 2006)
The Bruce Medway series, fixer and debt collector in West Africa:
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- HackWriters.com review of A Small Death in Lisbon
- Post-Gazette.com reivew of A Small Death in Lisbon
- iVenus.com review of The Company of Stangers
- Guardian Unlimited review of The Company of Strangers
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About the Author:
Robert Wilson was born in 1957. A 1979 graduate of Oxford University, he has worked in shipping, advertising and trading in Africa. He has travelled in Asia and Africa and has lived in Greece and West Africa. He is married and writes from an isolated farmhouse in Portugal.