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The Madness of July, by James Naughtie, Head of Zeus, RRP£12.99, 352 pages
If you listen to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, you’ll know that James Naughtie doesn’t use one word where a meandering, multi-clausal sentence will do. He’s a man of many, many words. In The Madness of July, his new political thriller, they come at you in gusts. Paragraphs are dense with spy-speak, characters regularly give speeches mid-conversation and a typical exchange includes lines such as: “Starting out – Berlin, then Vienna – I was aware of a trickle of gold dust that came through a crack, treasure so precious that it was hardly spoken about, even among friends.” No, I have no idea either.
Naughtie has drawn on years of political reporting to write his first novel but his interest here is psychological, rather than journalistic or historical. The book is set in the mid-1970s, with a broad-brush cold war backdrop, and moves between Westminster, Washington, New York, memories of Berlin and Paris, and a prolonged episode in the Scottish Highlands – a location included, you suspect, so that Naughtie could write sentences such as, “He looked towards the loch and saw swirls of mist rising up in thin pillars, like the guilty secrets of a multitude of hidden smokers.”
The book’s protagonist is rising Foreign Office minister Will Flemyng, a former spy. Flemyng’s secret past catches up with him when a body is discovered in a cupboard in the Houses of Parliament. The dead man’s pocket contains a scrap of paper bearing Flemyng’s phone number: never a good moment in a political career. Flemyng is tasked by the cabinet secretary to resume snooping on the sly and work out what’s going on, clearing his own name in the process. Before long, Flemyng is back in contact with his old cronies in the secret services, making terse calls from phone boxes and padding around the corridors of power trying to pick out the bad eggs. So follows a frenzied unravelling of old allegiances and betrayals, fraternal rivalry, ministerial indiscretion and anonymous letters found on photocopiers. The action is set over six fraught days and leaps between private and political life on both sides of the Atlantic. Tense meetings of cabinet ministers sweating over a bill are given equal footing with emotional marital conversations and brotherly hugs. Political secrets are as important as those hidden within families.
Plot is secondary to he emotional life of the characters. Naughtie’s chosen epigraph is a quotation from The Great Gatsby – “I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the griefs of wild, unknown men” – and it is these buried griefs that he seeks to unearth, showing that the political class is ruled far more by private passion than cool logic. The “madness” is that which haunts every public figure, their smooth professional façade concealing unknown inner turmoil. Government, in Naughtie’s depiction, is a mess of muddled loyalties and dark arts, all invisible to the plebeian eye.
You have to admire the enterprise – instead of churning out another heartless spy caper, Naughtie wants to delve into the minds of men. But his method is to tell, not show, and the telling often obscures more than it explains. A character is bafflingly compared to “a tree-dwelling creature springing from branch to branch”; another is a “blues balladeer, with a soulful tune always ready”. To indicate distress, Flemyng is endlessly sent on mournful walks through city streets, or described staring thoughtfully out of windows. Commentary (“their mutual fishing expedition began”) punctuates conversation and characters are rarely allowed to speak for themselves – their eyes often widening, eyebrows cocking, hands spreading, smiles exchanging.
Perhaps this is all merely a product of Naughtie’s abundant energy, the same verve that he exudes from the radio even when it’s six in the morning, dark outside and he’s reporting for the umpteenth time on the Scottish independence debate. The Madness of July is a book bursting with its author’s enthusiasms – you can sense his relish as he describes the Scottish landscape and feel his boyish excitement at all the spy games and subterfuge. I can almost imagine Naughtie bouncing on a chair as he wrote, and it’s the authorial fizz that sustains the book – pushing it along at a boisterous lick so that a climax is reached before the reader feels too weighed down by lyrical accounts of the weather. It’s a radio presenter’s fate that anything they write will be read with their voice in your head, but in this case, somehow, it helps.
James Naughtie will be talking at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday 22 March (oxfordliteraryfestival.org)