Crafty sectarian spy saga balances meaty themes with page-turner grip
Fiction: Acts of Allegiance, Peter Cunningham, Sandstone Press, €16.99
Waterford has always been a constant in the work of Peter Cunningham, even if the author really only spent his early years there. What marks Acts of Allegiance, his tenth novel, as one of the more personal voyages Cunningham has embarked on over his career is a line that has been drawn straight from his own father's past following a revelation only divulged late in life.
It was always known in the locale that Cunningham Sr was a war hero who received the Military Cross for Gallantry following the D-Day landings at Normandy. It emerged much later, however, that his military career began as an informant of possible IRA operatives and sympathisers while stationed with the Royal Engineers in the North after the outbreak of WWII. It all made sense given that there were a few hazy lost years that never seemed to add up satisfactorily to the rest of the family.
The stresses and strains that presumably filled those knife-edge years - Cunningham's father was flown hurriedly to safety after getting "rumbled" - become a guiding pulse for this crafty le Carre-esque espionage thriller set in the fledgling decades of the Republic.
Martin Ransom is a diplomat who never seems quite able to wriggle free of the people he left behind in Ballybricken, Waterford. His upbringing on a country pile and schooling in England were at odds with the downtrodden surrounds of 1950s Ireland. Among the family members who end up reverberating into his adult life are his father Captain, his beautiful young aunt Kate and his cousin Ignatius "Iggy" Kane. The latter has gone on to rise up the ranks of IRA hierarchy. The incumbent Minister for Finance, one Charles J Haughey, summons Martin to a meeting at the appropriately opulent Saint-Cloud race course near Paris and asks him to be a middleman between Iggy and Haughey's republican "enthusiasms".
Martin is somewhat torn but relents none-the-less. His life becomes a sweat-browed relay after he succumbs to the charms of Alison, a British agent stationed in Ireland whom he meets through social connections. A mutual attraction is immediately intimated but an affair does not materialise immediately. Instead, Alison sees that Martin could make a great asset from his position inside the Department of External Affairs and puts duty first.
Cunningham is one of this country's more cherished storytellers for the very reasons on show here. Acts of Allegiance is structured for maximum grip with chapters roaming back and forth through the decades from the 1950s right through to the early 1980s and the political punctuation marks of those times. The prose is rich and silken. Meaty themes and discussions are cosily configured into the shape of a spies-and-seductions page-turner. Not an easy task, even for the best of them.
Besides the obvious threats that come with being something of a double agent, Martin is a flawed protagonist at the mercy of not only his personal politics but also family loyalty and his own feeble desire for excitement to break up the mundanity of both bureaucratic and married life. Haughey and Alison offer as much, and Cunningham's characterisation is so sound that Martin's complicity feels like the most natural decision in the world.