David Malcolm’s The German Messenger, a melancholy spy novel set in the UK during the First World War, is as foggy and moody as its cover suggests. Its protagonist, Harry Draffen happens upon an intrigue involving his opposites on the German side, who aim to land on the British coast and deliver a message. What that message is confuses Harry and his associates, unsure whether it will harm Britain or shorten the disastrous war which has embittered him.
This is a beautifully written novel with a mood which pulls you right in and demands you light a fire and pour some spirits down your neck. It’s an atmospheric tour of the UK from dowdy East End slums to isolated Scottish villages as Harry and his men, Andresj and McLeish hunt down the German Messenger, spilling blood and escaping dodgy predicaments by the skin of their teeth.
You might need a history refresher on what early twentieth century Europe looked like, and how ethnic tensions fizzed and exploded in the old empires, but it won’t distract from the story’s main thread.
The book is more in the Le Carre mould than crash, bang, wallop, and explores the tensions within Britain as much as those in Europe. Draffen and McLeish are Scotsmen, “bag-carriers for the English,” and that bitterness bursts out at times, often on Britain’s enemies. It gives the novel an extra level of welcome confused loyalties in a horribly complex Europe.
If you like a moody spy thriller which is more interested in procedural investigation, philosophy, and the complexities of the European and especially inter-British mindset, you can’t go wrong here.