Novel: The Envoy by Edward Wilson

A complex portrait of mid-twentieth century geopolitics is the primary asset of Edward Wilson’s The Envoy (2008), an unforgiving but rewarding tale of historical espionage. It chronicles the exploits of Kitson Fournier, a U.S. envoy in London who also serves as the CIA head of station on diplomatic cover. A reluctant spy, Fournier nonetheless has an undeniable skill for the sordid business of espionage. He also possesses an unhealthy romantic obsession with his cousin Jennifer, who is married to a British scientist involved in Great Britain’s pursuit of the hydrogen bomb. Fournier’s primary job is to further the national interests of the United States, but as his work thrusts him into conflict with allies and enemies alike, his wavering dedication erodes even as he uncovers a shocking international conspiracy.

Wilson’s historical portrait of mid-fifties England at the height of the Cold War is highly detailed and convincing, reminding me of the worldbuilding in Alan Furst’s work. It takes a while to warm up to, but the novel pays off down the home stretch. The narrative strategy is less propulsive than immersive: it feels like swimming around in clues and descriptions and color, before eventually resolving into an impressive big picture. Admiring the puzzle pieces is difficult initially, but once they start fitting together it’s a pleasure to watch the intricate mosaic come together. Fournier is not a particularly likable protagonist, but he’s a useful one for the novel’s insightful critique of scheming Cold War geopolitics and the madness of nuclear proliferation. I wasn’t sure I was enjoying this one at first, but came away highly impressed; it’s a unique and challenging achievement in spy fiction.

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