Moscow Exile (The Joe Wilderness Novels, 5)
“Lawton’s approach to espionage lacks the multiplying deaths and poignant self-blame of a Le Carré novel. But the resilience and determination of his Charlie, Coky, and eventually Joe Wilderness provide a strong portrait of Lawton’s real-life sense of espionage.”
Moscow Exile is offered as a “Joe Wilderness Novel,” the fourth in John Lawton’s international espionage series. Aside from a cryptic prologue set in 1969, though, Joe Wilderness is conspicuously absent from this lush historic novel until nearly 300 pages in.
That still gives Joe plenty of workspace, though, since Lawton’s model for this work might as well have been a classic Russian novel, lengthy and rich with generations of conflict, wealth, and fractured loyalties. And there’s no need to rush: Moscow Exile offers a bitter promenade through the Red Scare years of American politics and the malicious maneuvering of the Senator who in real life was Joseph McCarthy—here, Robert Redmaine, sleazy and powerful, tearing apart Hollywood’s professionals with accusations of anti-American affiliations.
Making the novel even more delicious for fans of Lawton’s British Inspector Troy investigation thrillers, Troy and his politically potent brother slide directly into the story, as the British leadership—especially via MI5 and MI6—attempts to shape its Iron Curtain diplomacy.
The heart of Moscow Exile is an alliance between a British spy who’s actually working for Moscow—the elegant Charlie Leigh-Hunt—and a far cleverer and beautiful woman, Charlotte (aka Cokey) Shumacher, also working for “the Reds,” for different reasons. Lawton provides many sexual liaisons for the pair (such a relief to read untwisted sexuality, despite the international betrayal going on) and demonstrates how direct international espionage can be. It would be nice to think that the America of the 1950s and 1960s wasn’t really infiltrated this way. But for Charlie and Charlotte, with specific reasons to prefer “anyone but Britain” handling world leadership, spying comes easily and with lower risks than expected.
An ”ordinary” espionage novel would make sure that those betraying America and Britain to Russia/the Soviet Union would pay a deadly price. Lawton offers a mirror inversion instead: Secrets, seduction, and certainty fuel a path to safety behind the Iron Curtain. Only Joe Wilderness, with the Troy brothers oddly interconnected to him, sees clearly what Soviet ideology means for Moscow.
Oddly, Moscow Exile lays out reasons that people chose on behalf of global communism and active socialism, and those characters who sustain their loyalty to related ideals somehow manage to escape deadly failure. This “Russian novel” hosts an unusual morality that places loyalty—to whatever cause—and generous friendship together as allies, so that even a politically crooked philanderer can become heroic in their way.
That allows Joe Wilderness, with his plain British loyalty and willingness to be used as a pawn in a spy swap, to sit on the outskirts of this hefty book. Instead, Coky Schumacher demonstrates how an unsuspected wife of a half-mad politician can protect the Soviet side. She spells it out for Charlie: “Why, you think it happenstance that Bob chooses the innocent and harmless to grill? I steer him away from the real Communists.”
She also details the moral quagmire of creepy politicos like her senator husband: “The amazing thing about Red-baiting is that he’s stuck with it. I think he was on a quest to find out what would win, and if it turned out to be right-wing, racist, paranoid bigotry, so be it. That is the mask he has adopted,” she explains. And when Charlie gets her point and suggests, “We might become what we pretend to be,” Coky provides a blunt summary: “We are what we pretend to be . . . and in that is a lesson for us both, Charlie-boy.”
Lawton’s approach to espionage lacks the multiplying deaths and poignant self-blame of a Le Carré novel. But the resilience and determination of his Charlie, Coky, and eventually Joe Wilderness provide a strong portrait of Lawton’s real-life sense of espionage: calculating, well-armed, self-defined. The irony of Moscow Exile is that those with undivided loyalty in the novel—the Troy brothers, Lord Troy’s wife Anna, and Joe himself—occupy only “bit parts” that require swift decisions and able allies.
On the other hand, the true villain of the book, Senator Redmaine, bears a strong resemblance to some of today’s political rising stars. “And that is a lesson for us both,” as Coky would point out.