The empty avenue curved away between green-hedged villas, quiet and sinister as an old film set. Then a dog padded purposefully out of a gateway, and a milk-float whined along the gutter.
The Spy’s Wife was published in 1980 as one of Reginald Hill’s stand-alones. Much as I love his acclaimed Dalziel and Pascoe police procedural series, this is one of my favourites among his canon. Throughout his writing career, begun in 1970, Hill was writing stand-alones alongside his series, usually thrillers. In the ’70s and ‘8os, these were often brought out under his pen-name Patrick Ruell, though latterly they’ve been repackaged.
Reginald Hill was a very interesting thriller-writer and if you’ve only read Dalziel and Pascoe, it’s well-worth seeking out these other titles. I think it’s fair to say his early thrillers are less well-known than his detective fiction and later standalones such as his final novel, The Woodcutter. As far as I know, The Spy’s Wife was always published under his real name.
The Spy’s Wife isn’t an easy novel to describe as there’s a great deal to uncover. The title is a conundrum in itself, being both apt and misleading. Set in the 1970s, this is the story of Molly Keatley, a happily-married housewife in her thirties. Her cosy life in Westcliff-on-Sea collapses like a house of cards one morning when her husband Sam returns home for a few minutes and dashes off again. Her next caller informs her that Sam is a Soviet spy and traitor. No spoiler – this comes on the first page.
This is a character-driven narrative and despite a compelling plot, it’s far from your average thriller. Neither can it truly be described as an espionage novel, although an investigator from a shadowy government department – never named as M.I.5 – plays a major role. There’s no tradecraft here. This is about the nature of lies, truth and illusion. The human cost of spying as seen by an outsider.
Molly is a Yorkshire lass who, like many young girls in the Swinging Sixties, left her home town to work amid the beckoning lights of London. In the novel she returns to her ageing parents in Doncaster, where Reginald Hill taught for many years as a college lecturer. His affection for Yorkshire folk with their no nonsense attitude and core of pragmatic, understated stoicism shines through the novel. At times, Molly’s stock of pithy, common sense is reminiscent of a certain Fat Man, beloved of Hill’s fans.
There’s a great deal of reflection, wisdom and humour in this novel. It’s concerned with the accommodations we all must make as we navigate the pot-holes and craters on our path. The choices we make as we try to find the best way to get by in this baffling business we call life. Molly gets to revisit the road not taken and rediscovers an inner strength as she determines to take control of events. A profound and thought-provoking read, within a page-turner of a story that’s tense and unpredictable.
Re-reading The Spy’s Wife after many years, I was so impressed with how well Reginald Hill could write about women. All the more so, as I’ve never enjoyed Ellie Pascoe in the Dalziel and Pascoe novels. My heart always sank when she made an entrance and the titles where she played a major part, such as Arms and the Women were the ones I enjoyed least. To be fair, I think she was all too familiar, just not my type!
Molly Keatley’s ‘voice’ is completely believable. She springs off the page, as do all the characters, particularly Molly’s parents. As I read, I kept thinking what a good television drama this would make. Didn’t get as far as imagining casting. My fantasy casting – a game we often play – mostly involves actors long gone or retired.
The novel’s sense of place is wonderful. When written, of course, Reginald Hill was looking back only a few years and he captured life in the 1970s, over-hung by the Cold War, in evocative detail. I loved every page and despite recalling the main plot points, found it hard to put down.
Fans of Dalziel and Pascoe know Reginald Hill’s writing was intelligent and compassionate. Throughout The Spy’s Wife, there’s an underlying sense of his wisdom and humanity. This is the quality of writing that makes the prejudice against ‘genre’ novels, as opposed to ‘literary’ novels, look ridiculous.
At the time of posting, The Spy’s Wife isn’t out as an ebook and – as far as I know – is only available new from American publishers Felony & Mayhem. I’m greatly indebted to them for several much-wanted British titles which should still be in print in the U.K. (Though I wish they wouldn’t update Golden Age novels to politically correct language). And this time, their jacket copy is a little misleading. The Keatleys live in a suburb of Southend-on-Sea, not London.
Be prepared to go in a different direction from thriller/espionage labels and The Spy’s Wife is a superb read. Highly recommended.