She Died Young by Elizabeth Wilson Serpent’s Tail, RRP £11.99, 343 pages
1950s London. The body of a young woman is discovered in a King’s Cross hotel, and Scotland Yard has decided it is an accidental death. But journalist Gerry Blackstone, unconvinced, tracks down the doctor involved, who has a different story to tell. In Oxford, refugees from the abortive Hungarian Revolution are under scrutiny from DCI Jack McGovern for the presence of Russian spies; inevitably, the two scenarios come together, with tendrils stretching from East End criminals to highly placed government ministers. At the more literary end of the crime/espionage genre, one of the most accomplished writers is Elizabeth Wilson, whose The Girl in Berlin combined glittering, dark-hued prose with levels of penetrating psychological insight the equal of her great predecessors in the field. Wilson’s upwards trajectory continues here; the author is an academic with a speciality in popular culture, so it’s no surprise that her storytelling ethos is so peerless. The picture of 1950s Britain has the usual confident sweep.
The Accidental Agent by Andrew Rosenheim, Hutchinson, £18.99, 388 pages
Rosenheim’s Fear Itself was set in the turbulent political world of 1930s America, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in an assassin’s gunsight. As well as being a superlative thriller, that book presented a sophisticated and rounded picture of a society and an era, a trick pulled off again in the equally accomplished The Accidental Agent.
WWII. The development of a super weapon will win the war, but while the Allies work on the atom bomb, the Germans are bent on acquiring a nuclear weapon. Special Agent James Nessheim goes undercover at a secret nuclear programme at the University of Chicago, joining the team of physicist Enrico Fermi — which has been infiltrated. But is Nessheim the right man for the job? Ex-lover (and ex-communist) Stacey Madison has re-entered his life. Conspiracy and betrayal are set to derail the American war effort.
There is much to praise in this complex and ambitious narrative, not least the adroitly handled ticking clock scenario.