Here’s the premise: During World War I, Germany stationed sleeper agents around the world, and as Germany’s surrender became imminent in 1918, the Krauts told their spies to remain undercover awaiting the inevitable rebirth of the Reich. It’s pretty much the premise of the 2013 TV show, The Americans, where Soviet spies walk among us living as normal Americans for decades. In this case, it’s a German spy chilling in Scotland awaiting instructions while living a shadow life.
The novel begins immediately following WWI when a German sleeper spy, who adopts the name named Will Hartz, relocates from Switzerland to Scotland’s Orkney Islands, a useful port in both world wars. The water surrounding the islands was the site of a dramatic series of events in 1919 where the Germans intentionally sunk and abandoned 52 of their own ships rather than have them captured and redistributed to enemy forces at the war’s conclusion.
Upon settling there, Will buys a pub frequented by fishermen and settles in for a quiet life awaiting tasking from Germany. The author perfectly captures the combination of stress, boredom and loneliness that long-term undercover agents experience. This is exacerbated by the ambiguity of the mission in peacetime and the lack of directions from his superiors back in the Fatherland.
It’s a long wait for Wilhelm, but the author keeps things moving for the reader. Wilhelm follows the developments in Germany via the news from afar, including the rise of a Nationalist party comprised of disgruntled war veterans, led by a man named Adolf Hitler.
The reader is also treated to flashbacks from Will’s life to give us a better understanding of how this mild-mannered fellow became a spy embedded in a small Scottish fishing village. It’s a slow burn more about a man forced to live in a small community with a big secret rather than a typical spy yarn of the era. Nevertheless, the paperback was plenty entertaining for a literary novel about a small man with a big secret.
The first half of the paperback is a character-driven novel about a dormant spy, and the second half has some elements of a spy novel coinciding with the rise of Hitler, if that makes sense. Hitler’s ascendance pushes Will in some uncomfortable directions, and the novel’s central tension is his willingness to go along with orders from the Fatherland after assimilating quite nicely into Scottish island culture for 20 years.
I enjoyed this novel, but it was about twice as long as it should have been. It was not action-packed, but it was very well-written. Will’s journey through the early 20th century made for some good reading, but the reader shouldn’t confuse the book with a fast-moving spy thriller. If “recommended with reservations” is a thing, that’s probably where I land.