It’s the early 1960’s, the height of the Cold War, and Giles Holloway is a spy for the Russians, employed by the British Admiralty. He has been slipped a file to copy by his superior, Julian Clowde, and he takes it up to his secret attic room to photograph it.
But Giles has become an unreliable drunk. He falls down the stairs, breaking bones. He knows he must do something about returning the file by the next day, so he calls Simon Callington from the hospital and asks him to pick up the file and give it to Julian Clowde’s secretary.
Simon is not a spy. He’s an unambitious coworker who is more interested in his family than his job. Long ago, when Simon was at university, he was Giles’s lover, and Giles thinks he will do as he’s told. But when Simon sees the folder, he knows it should not be in Giles’s possession and realizes the truth. Instead of taking it back to work, he hides it in a briefcase in the closet. But someone has seen Simon in Giles’s apartment.
Simon’s wife Lily finds the briefcase with the file behind Simon’s shoes while she is cleaning. She knows Simon isn’t guilty of espionage and can guess what happened, as she is aware that Simon went out the night before in response to a call from Giles. Lily buries the briefcase in the garden.
Suddenly, policemen arrive to arrest Simon and search the house. They find nothing, but somehow a small camera for microfilm has been found in Simon’s office.
Dunmore does an excellent job of invoking the Cold War era and of creating suspense in this novel. The authorities are misguided, as it becomes clear that the real spies are trying to frame the innocent Simon. Lily, a German Jewish refugee during World War II, is questioned as if she were a Nazi. The newspapers break the news, and Lily loses her job as a French teacher and is treated like a pariah. After a while, the novel moves its focus to the struggles of Lily and her children, who go to a small village to live.
Although it took me a while to warm up to Lily and Simon, I was gripped, wondering what was going to happen to them and their three children. I liked this novel much more than I did The Greatcoat, the only other book by Dunmore I have read.