While I was combing through the newly acquired works of fiction at my local public library I came across a copy of Aly Monroe’s 2010 spy novel Washington Shadow. While I usually shy away from books of that genre, after reading the book’s teaser on the back cover I was sucked in hook, line and sinker. Set during the fall of 1945, it follows the adventures of British agent Peter Cotton who has been sent to the American capital as part of a British delegation led by the economist John Maynard Keynes. While the goal of the delegation is to negotiate the terms of a massive loan desperately needed by a war-bankrupt Britain, Cotton’s secret mission is really twofold: to observe and report on America’s dismantling of its wartime intelligence service the OSS while at the same time recruit a local African-America university professor to serve as a pro-western and anti-Communist voice for an upcoming summit of future African leaders to be held in Manchester, England. Along the way Cotton encounters a host of characters, including a beautiful young woman from the State Department, a shadowy Soviet ex-tank commander and an aspiring crime novelist with a severe drinking problem to match his self-destructive streak.
But perhaps one of the most significant characters of all in Monroe’s novel is the city of Washington D.C. itself. Despite its five years of boom-town growth, America’s capital city still has the feel of a provincial backwater. Lacking in “decent restaurants” and patrician confidence, Washington DC still looks up to New York City as its big brother and patron. Compounding all of this is the specter of racial tension which hangs over the largely segregated city like the stifling malaise of an August heat wave. Despite countless evenings of state dinners, embassy receptions and soirees, for the most part Washington still resembles a northern outpost of the American South.
If you ask me if I liked this book, I would probably answer yes and no. Monroe’s novel is incredibly well-researched. Overall, I thought the writing was good, but not spectacular. Unfortunately, I thought the characters, even the main ones were left a tad underdeveloped. Lastly, I thought the ending with its unnecessary and improbable plot twist was a huge disappointment. But, keeping all that in mind for the most part I found myself enjoying Washington Shadow. I’m hoping Monroe’s next novel will be better, if even by a little.