The Madness of July
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 11th March, 2014
The madness of July is that often hysterical period in the heat of mid-summer when political tempers are frayed and governments seem to be falling apart, before every one goes off for their August holidays to recover. But as the central figure in James Naughtie’s debut novel, The Madness of July (Head of Zeus, £12.99), the Foreign Office Minister Will Flemyng, remarks early on in the story, the madness passes, like a fever. The period is the mid-to-late 1970s, when the Cold War is still on and Britain stands side by side with the United States in the face-off with the Soviet Union. Yet there are hidden tensions in the transatlantic relationship, and things seem set to get a whole lot worse when the body of an American rogue spy is found in a cupboard in the Palace of Westminster. A mystery unfolds, in increasing complexity, as Flemyng, his two brothers and several governmental colleagues are caught up in the metaphorical fog swirling around them. A devastating scandal threatens, yet the reader is left guessing as to exactly what that might be almost till the end. Naughtie — best known to the British public as one of the presenters on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme — writes confidently as he weaves his story, leading the reader by the hand up dark alleys and then leaving them to find their way out of them. There are certain echoes of John Le Carré — perhaps inevitable when there are mentions of past actions off-stage in Berlin and Vienna, and in which several of the main persona are not really what they appear to their fellows. But the book is more about politics than espionage and indeed about personal relationships — friendships (always tinged with elements of rivalry and mistrust in politics) and the love between the three brothers. Naughtie’s great strength as a writer is to create ambience — the ambience of Whitehall in the heat (real and illusional), of London’s gentlemen’s clubs and of the Highlands of Scotland whence the Flemyngs hail and to which they will ultimately be able to return, the madness not exactly purged but abated.