I enjoyed the first novel in Aly Monroe’s Peter Cotton series, and I assumed I would like this one too. I was not mistaken.
In this novel, Aly Monroe places her hero, Peter Cotton, in a contingent of British diplomats and MI6 agents who immediately after the end of the Second World War have come to Washington under the auspices of the great economist Maynard Keynes in order to ask for some aid in dealing with their own post-war austerities. Washington Shadow (325 pages, John Murray, $12.95) examines the post-war desperation of the English, the increasingly chilly relations between the Americans and the Soviets, the break-up of the OSS, and the gradual slide into the cold war, all from a refreshingly oblique British angle.
Of course from the British point of view, this moment, probably more than any other, except the Suez Crisis of ten years later, marked the end of British global domination. Peter Cotton has gone to Washington with a group that is there to salvage some respectability along with a sizable loan. The farsighted among the diplomats realize that the best they can probably hope for is a position as intelligence aid and senior advisor to the greener and less experienced Americans. The British felt, justifiably so, that their years as civil servants and empire builders have given them a perspective on the present crisis.
Keynes, of course, is also trying to remind the Americans how much they owe to their former colonial rulers. As the key figures negotiate a long-term post war loan, Peter Cotton and his group are trying to create something like a more complex and partly secretive diplomatic mission on the new world scene. Washington is remarkably backwater in the year of this novel’s action, and a lot of the awkwardness of the American shift from the war against Germany and Japan to the cold war with the Soviet Union is apparent in the posturing and shuffling that is taking place at even the highest levels of diplomacy.
Aly Monroe is alive to these shifts—the novel is wonderfully researched—and she puts her hero in a place that allows him to experience, for better and for worse, the results of these growing pains. Peter meets a number of other British diplomats, some like him who have emerged from the armed forces, and he experiences their pain at trying to find a niche for themselves in the American scene. He also meets fascinating international figures, primarily a Russian and an African, who through their diplomatic friendliness show him the broad hints of horrors that are to come.
In the midst of this complex historical matrix, Cotton also makes close, even intimate friends. A British friend, his driver and assistant, is jumping ship as it were and trying to find a new home in America. This is complicated enough, especially when other friends are losing their jobs because of the American liaisons. Meanwhile, his own involvement with an impressive American female in diplomatic service begins to give Peter Cotton himself the feeling that he might be willing to relocate his career and settle in the States. Through this friend, Katherine, Peter experiences all the world of wealthy and cultured Americans has to offer. Katherine is of course a kind of renegade from her family—they would prefer her not to have anything like a real career—but Peter can also see how fulfilled she is by what she does. He tries to support her as they draw closer and talk about the future.
The tensions of the moment, however, both personal and political, prove to be too much for Peter and Katherine, as well as for many of their friends. The novel comes to a sober end, but then when one thinks about it, how could it not? This moment in history can hardly justify too many happy endings.
The ending is satisfying, nonetheless; and with it, Aly Monroe has deepened her claim as a talented and rewarding writer of historical suspense.
Washington Shadow is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.