Terry Stiastny – the former BBC journalist who has Dabbled here – has a debut novel out on July 17, published by John Murray. Acts of Omission is a tale of political intrigue and the legacy of the Cold War. Here’s Brit’s review…
It has been alleged that when I was Home Secretary I failed to deal adequately with the bundle of papers containing allegations of serious sexual impropriety that I received from the late Geoff Dickens MP. This is completely without foundation… As I made clear … I passed this bundle of papers to the relevant Home Office officials for examination, as was the normal and correct practice.
Lord Brittan, speaking last week about the alleged loss by the Home Office of a large number of documents compiled in the 1980s relating to a possible high-level paedophile ring.
There’s something very British about that phrase ‘bundle of papers’, isn’t there? It reeks of bumbling amateurishness, a cock-up waiting to happen. Here are some more stories. In 2000 an MI5 man caused a major security alert when he accidentally left his briefcase containing secret documents on a train while on his way to a meeting in Dorset. Earlier the same year another MI5 spy had had his laptop containing classified information about Northern Ireland stolen at a Tube Station, and a few days after that an MI6 agent left his laptop in a taxi after drinking in a tapas bar. In 2010 a GCHQ employee seconded to MI6 was found dead in a red North Face bag, padlocked from the outside. The coroner’s verdict was that “on balance of probabilities he was killed unlawfully”, but a Met reinvestigation concluded that ‘the most probable scenario’ was that he’d died alone after accidentally locking himself in the bag during some weird, possibly escapology-related misadventure.
Thus British spies.
Terry Stiastny’s debut novel Acts of Omission is set in the real world. John le Carré stripped away the 007 glamour of espionage, but although his spies lived in damp flats and visited grubby pubs, they were still extremely clever. Stiastny’s protagonists are much more like us: that is, they are a bit rubbish. There are top-level politicians who don’t know what they’re doing; spies who lose disks with ‘Secret’ written on the labels; even the investigative journalists are really just flailing around, hoping for the best. Everyone is promoted out of their depth, is muddling through, making it up as they go along. It is not a simple question of cock-up or conspiracy; there are cock-ups, following which the conspiracies to cover up the cock-ups are themselves cocked-up, yet these are only uncovered by incompetent hacks getting lucky. It all rings horribly true.
Acts of Omission is set in the late 1990s and tells its tale of conspiratorial cock-up through the eyes of three central characters: Alex, a lowly MI6 employee who misplaces his laptop and with it a disk containing secret files related to UK-based Stasi informers; Anna, a young newspaper journalist into whose hands the disk falls; and Mark Lucas MP, a rising star of government newly appointed to the Foreign Office, for whom the intelligence leak has potentially career-destroying consequences.
Stiastny is an ex-BBC political reporter and she guides us around the newsroom, Whitehall and Parliament with an insider’s eye and effortlessly clear, precise prose. She is particularly good on the great games of Westminster, and on the language of journalese. This is Mark reluctantly leaking information to the newspaper:
‘This has to not come from me,’ Mark said. ‘Or I can’t say anything. You’ll get a “no comment” from the Foreign Office and a “no comment” from Downing Street and that will be it.’
‘Sources?’ she suggested. ‘Friends of?’
He shook his head. ‘Not even that.’
‘It’s understood that…?’
Mark stretched out his hands in a gesture of reluctant acceptance. ‘I know that whatever I say it’ll turn into “this paper has learned exclusively”, but I can live with “understood.”.’
Equally insightful and amusing is Stiastny’s exposition of the ‘grammar’ of TV news. For example, after an interview Mark has to spend “a pointless few minutes being filmed walking down some stairs” – a staged visual for the television reporter to waffle over and, you suddenly realise, just the sort of meaningless thing that fills up 24 hour news broadcasts. Mark Lucas is a great character: a slightly vacuous, New Labourish type saved by a degree of self-awareness and by a basic decency which sets him apart from his more Machiavellian superiors (there are no obvious caricatures, but the ghost of Mandelson hovers nearby). As his problems start to pile up he becomes increasingly sympathetic. There are neat little humanising touches, such as his feelings of insecurity when having to cross into the House of Lords. On returning to the other House he walks “down the corridor into the green-carpeted zone of the Commons. It felt slightly shabbier there, but more comfortable, like putting on a second-best pair of shoes.”
In the second half of the novel the three characters’ adventures start to intertwine, the plot thickens and broadens and it becomes genuinely gripping (I fair rattled through the last third). When the unravelling of Lucas’ reputation comes it is shockingly swift. This is the strongest part of the book, and Stiastny orchestrates the politician’s demise with remarkable adeptness. As his so-called friends and colleagues fall over themselves to ditch him and the ministerial perks disappear with unceremonious haste it is all terribly unfair yet also quite inevitable and, in the end, something of a relief. As the wheels come off his once-promising career, Lucas sits watching the rolling TV news:
Then he saw himself: he was making the familiar walk down a staircase, into shot and out again, acting as though there were no camera there…In the end, this was what his career came down to. He was just a man in a suit, descending a staircase to a landing, again and again and again.
Although satisfyingly twisty in its plot, Acts of Omission is neither a conventional spy novel nor a conventional political thriller. Rather, it is a beautifully crafted story of three frail human beings trying to navigate paths through three great, symbiotic, dehumanising institutions – Westminster, the Secret Service and Fleet Street, each with its history, secrets and banal cruelties – while retaining their own humanity. They don’t entirely succeed, but thankfully, Stiastny grants them just enough room for a shot at redemption.