‘The last camel collapsed at noon.
It was the five-year-old white bull he had bought in Gialo, the youngest and strongest of the three beasts, and the least ill-tempered: he liked the animal as much as a man could like a camel, which is to say that he hated it only a little.’
… some of the better opening lines I have read recently. There’s something inherently dramatic about desert travel. Two paras into The Key to Rebecca and we’re already in a life-threatening situation. No transport, little water, and a heavy load to carry. Achmed, the camel’s owner, treks the rest of his journey on foot, and on the point of collapse, meets up with his family near the Egyptian town of Assyut. A wash, shave, and change of clothes later and he is revealed as Alexander Wolff, an Arab-German agent.
Wolff, aka the Sphinx, has made the near-impossible solo journey across the desert in order to sneak into Egypt unobserved. This is 1942 and Rommel’s Afrikakorps is threatening the British stronghold of Egypt. Rommel’s high-risk tactics rely on accurate military intelligence and Wolff, with his roots in Cairo, is the man to secure it. Equipped with his local knowledge, German transmitting equipment, a copy of Rebecca (the basis for his code, hence the book’s title), and a suitcase full of sterling, he sets to work on Germany’s behalf.
Wolff’s opponent is William Vandam, a British intelligence officer who soon becomes obsessed with the spy. Their conflict moves from professional to personal as the stakes get higher on both sides, until a final, desperate desert encounter.
The narrative takes a turn-by-turn structure, and whilst Follett doesn’t quite pull off The Day of the Jackal trick of making you root for the antihero (Wolff is too unpleasant for that), you do at least admire his skill as you follow his schemes.
Both Wolff and Vandam have enough flaws and conflicting motivations to make them interesting lead characters. Wolff is resourceful but his morbid fear of imprisonment makes him irrational and violent when cornered. His love of luxury compromises his need for secrecy. Vandam is something of an outsider – a scholarship boy, a career marred by an earlier failure, and a conscience marred by a death. Unlike most British officers in Egypt he sympathises with the Egyptians and can see why they would welcome an end to British domination.
This is not a boys-and-their-toys thriller. Both men are assisted by strong women, again with their own conflicting motivations and flaws. Wolff soon hooks up with an old flame, a belly dancer with a taste for the high life who is prepared to sleep with the enemy. But Sonja is not merely an Anglophobe, she is also driven by fear of Wolff, whilst having a need that only he can satisfy.
Meanwhile, Vandam’s plans to entrap Wolff rely on the cooperation of Elene Fontana, a beautiful Egyptian Jewish dancer who agrees to help the British. Vandam and Elene soon fall in love, despite their differences in culture and age, and more importantly, the fact that their relationship is based upon Vandam sending her off to seduce an enemy agent.
Reading this as a ‘classic’ book made me less inclined to read it as a work of historical fiction, but of course that’s exactly what it is. Judged in that way, it holds up very well. Follett doesn’t force his research down your throat, and concentrates more on atmosphere and action than facts and figures, meaning the story is the focus rather than the context. I didn’t come away feeling like I knew much about the conflict in North Africa, but I did feel I knew how to entrap a British officer in a web of sexual intrigue.
Overall, this is a workmanlike thriller of the kind you used to see in the 70s and 80s – a thick paperback with a Nazi artefact on the front. It is structured well and has decent three-dimensional protagonists, but for all that, I don’t think I will remember it for very long, or read it again.
Final destination: Charity shop
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.