I’ve always been fascinated with the history of the cold war spy novel. I had previously considered Atomsk, released in 1949 and written by Carmichael Smith, the first but it appears to only be the first US Cold War novel. The UK’s Humphrey Slater wrote Conspirator and beat Atomsk by a year.
Conspirator follows a Communist true believer who uses his military position to spy for the USSR. Slater was one of the many British communists that fell away from the cause after World War Two. According to Roland Philipps’s book A Spy Named Orphan, in 1951 Slater was having lunch at the same restaurant the infamous spy Donald Maclean was in the afternoon before he escaped. Slater saw Maclean but avoided talking with him as their last encounter had resulted in an argument. In fact, Slater had had suspicions that Maclean was a spy and word of his doubts contributed to authorities taking a closer look at Maclean. Slater is said to have partially based the book, which was released two years before Maclean’s escape, on the Cambridge spy.
A year after its release, the novel was adapted into a movie of the same name starring Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Taylor and Honor Blackman.
Reviews of the novel Conspirator were generally positive –
“It is a grim and enlightening demonstration of the debased and fanatical nature of the Communist underworld.” said Orville Prescott, book critic for The New York Times. An aside, Gore Vidal’s epic takedown of Prescott’s humorless style of criticism in Esquire is not to be missed.
Time rather more accurately pins down the novel saying “[t]his speedy, thrilling novel begins with a courtship so disarmingly warm and sunny that no reader will dream of the horrors that are lying in wait…Few readers will be able to put down Conspirator before they have reached the last gasp.”
The first 55 pages of the book concern the whirlwind romance of Desmond and Harriet. Desmond is in his early thirties, a member of the Grenadier Guards and on the fast track to become a senior official in the Ministry of Defense, perhaps even the minister himself if he plays his cards right. Harriet is a sheltered 17 year old from the right kind of family. The opening chapters show the two of them navigating through misunderstandings and differing values leading to their engagement, wedding and honeymoon. This part plays like a proto-On Chesil Beach as the two are left to guess what the other is thinking and unable to put their true feelings into words.
Although Slater drops a few oblique hints, chapter four sees a pretty effective heel twist as we follow Desmond performing some very effective tradecraft before meeting his two blank faced Russian handlers. It’s now where we see the true stakes of this story. He didn’t clear this marriage in advance with the Russians. Desmond plays off his love and marriage to Harriet as serving as good cover but his handlers are unnerved. It turns out they have good reason to be skeptical of this relationship as Harriet soon discovers the truth of his spying. Desmond, a true Communist believer, now faces a dilemma. Which will he choose – his love of Harriet or his love of Communism?
A visit to a ball where the princess will be in attendance gives an insight on the motivations of this spy and jibes with what we‘ve later learned about the Cambridge spies.
“As he danced with Harriet, enjoying her pliant body, Desmond thought how exhilarating his life was. …. He was delighted by his feeling of superiority and he told himself that these moments of elation went a long way to compensate for the inevitable anxieties of his hazardous profession.”Conspirator by Humphrey Slater, p. 105
An extended chapter where we follow the NKVD director as he decides how to manage the fact that Harriet has discovered Desmond’s secret is fascinating. It gives us our first glimpse of something we’ll see over and over again in the decades to come – the Cold War spymaster. He may be Russian, but you find his echoes in everyone from M to Smiley. His choice – have his agents either recruit her or kill her, is neatly resolved by telling Desmond to do the dirty work himself. If Desmond kills her, he’s proven his trustworthiness to the cause. If he doesn’t, they know to cut him loose from the organization.
Knowing the truth of his spying, Harriet leaves Desmond. In the end, despite his fanatical dedication to the cause, it isn’t enough drive him to murder his wife in order to keep his secret. The NKVD leaks news of his spying to the British security services and Desmond, unaware of the betrayal, feels the noose closing in. His solution to avoid the British authorities from finding his communist allies is sucide. Even in his sucide he takes steps to mask his espionage in order to keep his handlers safe, unaware of their hand in his imminent arrest. In the end,the UK security services intervene in the inquest into Desmond’s death to hide the fact they had so long had a spy in their midst. The blame ends up on Harriet as the cause of his sucide is placed on the “abrupt and callous way in which his wife had left him.”
The only in-depth look at the novel I could find is an interesting academic article in the Journal of Cold War Studies looking at the book’s place in Cold War history. In one of those “stranger than fiction” twists, the article is written by Anton Fedyashin. That’s a name some might recall as being connected to American University graduate student Maria Butina, who was kicked out of the US for espionage work. In this article by Russian historian Yuri Felshtinsky, it’s alleged that Fedyashin’s grandfather and father had deep KGB ties and that Fedyashin himself was Maria Butina’s handler in America. It’s at this point that we’ve truly entered a wilderness of mirrors where everywhere we turn are confronted with real and imaginary spies.
All that aside, Conspirator is very effective at giving the reader an insight into the mind of a western communist at the time. Slater’s past as a Communist himself gives Desmond’s thoughts and actions greater weight while also highlighting some of the delusions to the reality of Stalin’s rule of communist Russia that Desmond is unable to acknowledge.