The Diplomat’s Wife, by Michael Ridpath

This novel of communist spies and betrayal is an 'intelligent spy thriller'.
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Its every young person’s dream — to find out that one of your relations has a secret but fascinating past, and that they want to take you on a road trip through Europe to reveal all. This is the premise of The Diplomat’s Wife, and the journey is every bit as exciting as you’d hope.

In 1979, eighteen year old Phil, having wrecked his father’s car, and therefore his chance of hitch-hiking abroad, is offered the chance to accompany Emma, his grandmother, on a trip down memory lane. When searching for his grandmother’s medication, Phil discovers she has a gun in her suitcase, and instantly realizes that this is not going to be the quiet lazy trip he fondly imagines, and later, once a masked man shoots one of his grandmother’s old friends dead, things really start to hot up.

Emma is the diplomat’s wife of the title, and the major part of her story takes us into the melting pot of political manouvreing at the beginning of WW2. Emma’s main motivation for going back to the past is to discover the truth about her brother’s death. She suspects he may have been a spy and that his death was orchestrated by the British Secret Service. She also wants to find out the role that Kay, his American fiancee, had in his life, and whether she was working for the Stasi.

This is a well-paced story, though it zips between the points of view of Phil, the still rather naïve teenager, and Emma, who even when young seems to have been worldly-wise and cool-headed. So much so, that she is prepared to sell her husband Roland’s secrets to the Comintern as revenge for his betrayal of her with another woman. As a diplomat’s wife, she has access to state secrets, and her vengeance takes the form of continuing to live with Roland in a marriage of convenience, whilst coolly going through his briefcase at night.

Intrigue in Phil’s side of the story is added through his budding romance with Heike, a young woman he meets in a bar, who has other motives than romance on her mind. I don’t want to spoil the plot by detailing all the twists and turns, but one of the strengths of the novel is that it whisks us effortlessly between time zones and different parts of Europe, whilst always being clear exactly where we are. Emma experiences the terror of Kristallnacht first hand, but in the more modern part of the story takes Phil to see the Berlin wall, with all its tacky gift shops alongside. There is a wealth of historical detail to anchor us in the past, whether it is 1979 or 1939. The developing bond between Phil and his grandmother keeps the emotional tension as they face the dangers of the journey together. The Diplomat’s Wife is an intelligent spy thriller with believable characters and a fine sense of its historical settings, and I warmly recommend it.

Deborah Swift is the USA Today bestselling author of the Pepys Trilogy and the award-winning Past Encounters. The Lifeline is her latest novel set in Nazi-occupied Norway during World War Two.