The British writer Piers Paul Read is best known in this country as the author of a work of nonfiction called "Alive!" -- the account, a best seller several seasons ago, of how members of a soccer team survived a plane crash in the Andes by resorting to cannibalism. The book was a thoroughly riveting and professional job, yet its popularity has never filtered through to Read's novels, which are the real work of his career.
That is a pity, for he is a good novelist -- and "The Villa Golitsyn," his eighth novel, is a characteristic book that finds him near his peak. It's a carefully crafted tale that contains a full measure of suspense, both psychological and actual; its characters are diverse, interesting and plausible; it offers several nice twists of wit and irony; its only flaw of consequence, one that has cropped up elsewhere in Read's work, is that it gets rather too talky on psychological and religious matters.
Its plot dates back to a violent incident in Indonesia in 1965. A detachment of Gurkha soldiers under a British officer had crossed the Malaysian border into Indonesia and set up a secret camp there, as part of the British-sponsored Malaysian government's continuing guerrilla battle against the leftist government of Indonesia. Three days after establishing the camp, the soliders were ambushed by Indonesian troops and brutally murdered: "The most refined torments were kept for the British officer, Hamish Churton . . . While breathing through his nose in bubbles of blood he was made to watch the torture and execution of his men until he too was dispatched with a bullet in the back of the neck."
Now, 15 years later, the incident returns to haunt the British Foreign Office. It knows that the location of the camp was leaked to the Indonesian communists by a British spy, and it believes that spy to have been one of two men who served in the British embassy at Kuala Lumpur: Leslie Baldwin or William Ludley. Baldwin has been recommended for a highly sensitive post in the embassy at Washington, one that would "put into the hands of the man who held it every military and diplomatic secret of the Western Alliance." But if Baldwin is in fact a "hibernating traitor," obviously he must not be given the assignment.
Suspicion, in any event, points directly to Ludley, a wealthy fellow who revealed leftist sympathies at Cambridge; not long after the Indonesian incident he left the Foreign Office and moved to Latin America. An old friend of his, Simon Milson, works at the Foreign Office in London. When one of his superiors learns that he has been invited to visit the Ludleys in Nice, where they now live, he asks that Milson make a discreet effort to get to the truth of the matter; no action will be taken against Ludley if he turns out to be the traitor, but until the facts are certain Baldwin's promotion must be put on hold.
At this point the plot becomes exceedingly, but not bewilderingly, complicated. On the train to the south of France, Milson meets a teen-aged English girl, Helen Constable, who has run away from her stuffy parents and her oppressive school. He offers to help her, and brings her to the Villa Golitsyn, where Willy and Priscilla Ludley live. Also there is Charlie Hope, a homosexual schoolmate of Milson and Ludley.
In school, Ludley was a charismatic figure; Milson and Hope, like many other young men, fell under his intellectual and political spell. Yet the Ludley whom Milson meets at the Villa Golitsyn is a hopeless alcoholic on the brink of drinking himself to death. Milson cannot understand why "someone who had inspired such trust -- whom once he would have followed into Hell itself -- had changed from a hero into a drunk." Further: "Why did Willy live in Nice? He had given a dozen different reasons in the past 24 hours . . . but behind it all was the clear understanding that Willy lived in Nice because he could not live in England." Could guilt over what had happened in Indonesia, the awareness that he was a traitor, be the explanation?
The more elaborate Milson's efforts at sleuthing become, the more he is confounded by the tricky realities of a very complex situation. Into the bargain he falls in love with Priscilla Ludley, whose own love for Willy is tempered by various frustrations and who sends out promising signals to him, even as she tries to maneuver Helen into Willy's bed in hopes that she will bear the child that Priscilla herself cannot -- and thus give him something to stop drinking for, something to live for.
At the end Milson is faced with a terrible dilemma, a "choice of betraying his country or ruining himself." He, and the others in the tale, have learned some hard lessons about the man who once said that "there wasn't a God, and that since there wasn't a God there couldn't be absolute right or wrong." The conclusion of the story is ambiguous and satisfying.
Read is a modest writer who is content to write relatively brief novels that make no claims they cannot meet. Only the occasionally boring chatter at the Villa Golitsyn mars what is otherwise a swift and agreeable tale.