This is a quick, highly entertaining read which will appeal to different audiences. For those who know nothing or little of the background to the true story of Buster Crabb, it’s a short, fast-moving combination of spying, crime, adventure and political power games, told in an unadorned, muscular vernacular. The characters are skilfully drawn, express their opinions in a no-holds-barred way and, with few exceptions, somehow conspire to let the whole adventure go ahead without doing too much to prevent it.
However, those familiar with the history of 20th century Britain and particularly with this embarrassing episode, which occurred back in the time of Anthony Eden, will enjoy the greater complexity Needle achieves. His take on the story and his insertion of characters such as Bond creator Ian Fleming, Eden himself, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt and others into it gives him scope for plenty of tongue in cheek descriptions of meetings, conversations and examples of the incompetence of those overtly in control. There’s nothing gratuitous about it; those people were around, actually occupying the positions of authority and power he describes. But his hindsight and sense of humour gives him plenty of scope for satire, which he uses to great effect. Anthony Blunt’s predilections earn him the title of ‘Queen Mother’, the little cameo of Ian Fleming reveals him to be an unpleasant writer of ‘penny dreadfuls’, and I hope very sincerely that the source Needle identifies for the title of his story for children, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, is true.
Beyond all this, though, the timing of this publication must be deliberate. Back then, as now, Old Etonians were in charge and the British class system was solidly entrenched. The strange assumption that an Etonian education prepares one for high office is subtly questioned here as all those responsible for the enormous cock-up of the whole Crabb episode show themselves as ill-informed incompetents who hurry to shift the blame onto others, who, naturally, are further down the pecking order. Needle is too subtle a writer to make any direct comparisons or references, but the parallels between this escapade and events of the past few months are blatant.