Zero hour

I thoroughly enjoyed William Boyd's First World War spy thriller Waiting for sunrise. I'd enjoyed his earlier spy thriller Restless although I think that this is a rather better read.

Lysander Rief is a young British actor, son of an English actor and an Austrian mother, who is staying in Vienna seeking psychiatric help inspired by the recent successes of Sigmund Freud, who has a walk-on part. Vienna is all Belle Epoque, Freud, Klimt and coffee. While there Rief becomes entangled with a neurotic young woman which will have unfortunate consequences, and which, on the eve of war, will lead him to becoming a spy in the service of Britain; but this spy drama will end up being played out rather closer to home than he had anticipated.

It's not the most perfect spy story ever. Partly because of the historical background it is occasionally clunky with the odd unfortunate anachronism, but there is much to admire in the story and the characterisation. Like Restless the uncertainty and insecurities of the spy's life gain in importance as the book progresses. And also like Restless there's an element of not knowing at the end of the novel quite what has happened. You are in effect presented with two alternatives, but is Rief telling the reader the truth?

The novel's title is all too apt as various versions of waiting for sunrise are presented to the viewer, from the lover reluctant to leave his love "Busy old fool, unruly sun", to the classic time set for an execution. Which sunrise we, the reader, are waiting for, is left to our imagination.

It's a wonderful view of pre-war Vienna, in fact the only downside to this novel is that more of it isn't set there, as this is undoubtedly the best part of the book. But if you've never read any William Boyd before this is a great spy novel with which to start.


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