Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Scholars of Night, by John M. Ford

Tor Books, ISBN 9781250269164, September 2021 (original publication February 1988)

This is a Cold War spy thriller, published in 1988, when the Cold War was still on and fear of nuclear annihilation still felt very, very imminent. Ford was a great writer, and this book gives the lie to the defense for the sexism and other attitudes we are often urged not to criticize in older works "He was of his time." Ford's female characters have to deal with the sexism and misogyny of the time, but they themselves are strong, intelligent, independent, and not treated by Ford as if they deserve the attitudes they have to struggle against.

Nicholas Hansard is a young professor of history at a small college, who also has a tiny toehold in the world of espionage--though he's not entirely aware of it. He just does some research and document authentication for The White Group, and has no real idea what The White Group really is.

The really important thing he doesn't know, though, is that his mentor, Allan Berenson, is a spy, theoretically part of the US intelligence world, but in reality working for the Russians. When Berenson dies, apparently of a heart attack but in fact a carefully staged elimination of the double agent, things start spinning out of control, not just in Hansard's life, but, especially there.

He nearly quits his enjoyable little side job with The White Group, having realized by events surrounding Berenson's death that something is very odd, but is persuaded to at least delay that resignation with the bait of a newly discovered play purportedly by Christopher Marlowe--who was himself a spy employed by Elizabeth I's spymaster, Francis Walsingham. He's given a copy, and sent to England to do the research necessary to determine if it's real.

Once there, he meets a woman named Ellen Maxwell at the British Library, who is also there apparently doing research.

Meanwhile, we are seeing other parts of the story from other viewpoints, including at a military wargaming center in Britain, a joint NATO operation testing new equipment and plans. We also see high-level Soviet (and more than thirty years later, I initially typed "Russian," because the world has changed) operatives in Britain, and the woman who was the number two in Berenson's ring, still working to carry out his plan, which includes a nuclear strike.

All the different threads and players are intertwined in the story, and we can't always be sure who is really working for who. We don't, above all, know who Berenson's loyal and determined number two, going by code name WAGNER, really is, though there's more than one candidate, as well as the possibility that she's someone else.

This is a subtle intricate, and satisfying Cold War spy thriller, with a greater awareness of the distance between social rules and reality than most (not all) of Ford's contemporaries in the field. 

Ford died in 2006, and due to lack of a will and a literary executor, and misunderstandings, his work has been out of print ever since. It's a joy to have this book available again after so many years, with the rest of Ford's work scheduled to be published over the next few years. Fair warning: This is his only book that isn't science fiction or fantasy, and this one is, arguably, alternate history, or secret history. The first to come back into print, last year, was The Dragon Waiting, is an alternate history historical fantasy.

Highly recommended, and I mean that not just for this book, but for all of them, as they become available again.

I bought this book

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