Whispers of Betrayal

by Michael Dobbs

Published by HarperCollins (UK)

314 pages, 2000

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Under Siege

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


Michael Dobbs was both lucky and not in being a literary success from the get-go. His first novel, House of Cards (1989), was a splendidly driven and devious tale about Francis Urquhart, a chief whip in Britain's Parliament whose legislative and personal goals were uninhibited by anything so tedious as scruples or a sense of equity. Adapted for television (with some essential changes) by the BBC, the popularity of Dobbs' debut led to a pair of sequels and made the author a hot commodity in publishing circles. However, his subsequent works have all been judged in relation to House of Cards -- and sometimes been found wanting.

Admittedly, it's hard to whack every one over the fences with the same assurance that carried House of Cards so far. But Whispers of Betrayal, the third installment in his series about a bumbling but generous-hearted "parliamentary detective" named Thomas Goodfellowe, finds Dobbs again exploiting his insider knowledge of political machinations to most-satisfying effect. No longer is Goodfellowe relegated to the sidelines of power-scheming and spin-doctoring. In this hard-to-set-aside and frequently humorous story about a plot to cripple London and bring a self-serving prime minister to his knees -- arguably Dobbs' best novel of the last half-decade -- Goodfellowe finds himself back at the beating heart of things, the man upon whom the future of Britain's capital city unexpectedly rests.

As Whispers grinds into gear, Goodfellowe's prospects appear to be improving. Although he lost his government ministerial standing in his premiere adventure, Goodfellowe MP (1997), and his wife remains adrift in a state of depressive catatonia, the "Honourable Member of Parliament for Marshwood" has finally made peace with his teenaged daughter, Sam, and looks well along the way to happiness with fetching restaurateur Elizabeth de Vries. Furthermore, he is slowly regaining a sense of ambition. As he tells an appalled Sam early on, "I'm thinking of becoming -- trying to become, at least -- a Minister once more."

Meanwhile, however, other players in this drama are conspiring to test the backbencher's patience and perspicacity. Foremost among these is Colonel Peter Amadeus, an erstwhile paratrooper and old school chum of Goodfellowe's, who feels betrayed by the British government. After his many years of service and heroic acts during the Falklands War, he is disgusted to see the military being reduced in size and stature "by a mixture of recession and the awesome incompetence of its political masters." Condemned by budgetary cuts to a desk job, Amadeus resolves that the leaders of his island nation should apologize for treating him and soldiers like him shabbily ("Belated recognition that they were men. Of valour, and of value."). But when his letter to one of the London tabloids, enunciating his grievances, is answered with scorn by the Minister for Defense, the colonel decides that his willingness to reason has ended. It's time for revenge.

Amadeus and his hand-picked cabal of disgruntled military experts start small: They pollute the water supply to Number 10 Downing Street with food dye, causing Prime Minister Jonathan Bendall's wife to exit her shower one morning all astream with the colors of a stagnant pond. Some see this as a prank, but not Bendall. A supremely arrogant and conniving pol, he imagines in this disruption the kernel of domestic terrorism on a monumental scale. "It could have been anything!" he tells his beleaguered Home Secretary. "The most monstrous substance known to man. Typhus. Anthrax. You talk of reassurance and God knows I've tried, Home Secretary. I've looked at it every way I can, but I'm damned if I can find a single shred of reassurance in any of this. My wife could be dead. I could be dead. The whole of our system of government paralyzed." Stung by charges that he isn't acting with the alacrity or savvy necessary to forestall more widespread attacks on Londoners, and hoping to shore up his approval ratings, Bendall launches a crusade against whomever caused the mischief at Number 10, unprepared for the fact that his defiance will only cause Amadeus and company to fight back with ammunition of increasing potency.

Author Dobbs, who was an adviser to former prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, brings to his yarns an authenticity of attitude and action that would elude a writer with less experience or interest in the workings of government. One hardly doubts that the peeks he allows us inside Number 10 or the horse-trading hallways of Parliament draw on his intimate knowledge of both. But it is Dobbs' sketches of toadying and eccentric politicians that are the most delightful. Consider, for instance, his description of a bullying House whip by the name of Battersby:

Battersby was an oversized man with a figure like a deflating balloon and a face that brought to mind a cauliflower. A couple of outer leaves stuck out from the top of the cauliflower in passing imitation of hair. The Battersby mind could never be described as broad but, in the exercise of his duties, it was extremely singular. He was what was known as the Whip of Last Recourse. It was his function to deal with those Members who had reached that point of utter confusion in which they started rambling about 'conscience' and 'principle' .... At that stage Battersby would reach into his badly cut and over-large jacket and pull out a little black book. The production of this well-thumbed volume was a gesture that inspired remarkable piety, for in it were recorded all of the known telephone contacts for that particular Member. Starting with The Wife, of course. Then The Parliamentary Secretary. Also The Constituency Agent. In the case of an alcoholic, the book held the number of The Doctor or The AA Group, and with a gambler, perhaps even The Accountant or The Bookmaker.

But the most potent entries in that little black book seemed to be those numbers that a Member struggled to keep most private -- the 'OI' numbers, as they were referred to in Battersby's shorthand. What those in the Whips' Office called 'the numbers of the night'. The places where the Member was most likely to be found in the hours after the sun had set. The numbers of The Mistress or The Lover.

In Battersby's book and in his meticulous script, these names were divided into two categories differentiated between 'Occasional Indiscretion' and 'Ongoing Involvement.' .... Production of the dog-eared manual at the regular surgery [Battersby] held in the Whips' inner sanctum had a similar effect to a cattle herder producing a revolver -- cures amongst those beasts afflicted by the disease of conscience proved almost miraculous.

Broadly seen, this whole novel is about vulnerabilities: those of the elected officials who draw Amadeus' ire and those of the metropolis in which they all reside. The military conspirators embarrass Bendall at one point by corrupting the pager system with which whips summon Members to vote in the House of Commons, shooing them all home just when the Prime Minister needs their help to pass his latest budget. Elsewhere, Amadeus destroys the career of Bendall's latest Home Secretary by directing copies of the impassioned e-mail messages he sends to a young male researcher on to the editor of a local newspaper. The conspirators even find ways to wreck havoc across London's telephone and traffic-control systems. (Dobbs reports in an afterword that, as an enthusiastic student of security systems, he worries about modern cities falling prey to the very sorts of technological assaults outlined in Whispers. One can only hope that this book doesn't give the nut-jobs out there a few pointers.) In a subplot, and as a nice counterpoint to all of this, Goodfellowe proves vulnerable in his own quite different way -- a victim of jealousy, incited by the strong-willed Elizabeth de Vries' efforts to raise much-needed capital for her restaurant from a former lover.

As London's security deteriorates, and extraordinary government defenses prove impotent, Bendall turns to just about anyone who can help, no matter how unlikely. And no one could seem more unlikely than Thomas Goodfellowe, a man the Prime Minister has already made look foolish in front of the whole House, someone whose reputation might regain its luster only in comparison with others who enjoy even less public favor. While Goodfellowe imagines his call to Bendall's aid as a first move back into the loops of power (the initial step, perhaps to his becoming Prime Minister himself -- a particularly proletarian PM, complete with his rusting bicycle as "a symbol of sincerity and independence"), Bendall sees the Member from Marshwood as an annoyingly "high-minded moralist" whose single asset is in giving his administration a "principled" air. Yet Goodfellowe, studying the situation with fresh eyes and a willingness to speak his mind, proves to be the most able analyst of Amadeus' actions. The trouble is, Goodfellowe's efforts may be too little and come too late to save either the odious Bendall or the glorious capital.

There's a tendency in novels employing political backdrops to portray officeholders as one-dimensional and two-faced and to look for heroes from beyond the echoing hallways of government -- journalists, private eyes, maybe private citizens who are seeking justice amidst the bureaucratic maze. The Goodfellowe yarns, while they certainly include elected leaders with more peccadilloes than promise, also provide in their main protagonist a welcome exception. In an interview posted on the HarperCollins Web site, Dobbs is asked to diagnose the popularity of his backbench-warming sleuth. "I think [Goodfellowe's] appeal," the author muses, "lies in the fact that he is a very normal human being. Unlike so many politicians and political characters who tend to be ... driven by ambition or some other single-minded motivation. He, like the rest of us, has all sorts of things going on in his life: not only job and politics but family and money problems, girlfriend problems -- all the usual sorts of problems that have a direct impact on the sort of life he is able to lead and the sort of activities he is able to undertake. So he operates on many different levels, and he is a much more compassionate fellow because of those involvements and, indeed, those weaknesses."

Francis Urquhart would have rolled over him like a Prussian tank, only twice as fast. But after Goodfellowe MP, The Buddha of Brewer Street (1998) and now Whispers of Betrayal, the overweight and underappreciated Member from Marshwood has proved -- to himself, as much as anyone else -- that he has the potential for greatness. Dobbs may make his own point with Whispers. Although it isn't a perfect book (it fails, for instance, to fully exploit the delightfully brazen character of Mickey Ross, Goodfellowe's assistant), it does show that the author hasn't lost his touch for penning intelligent thrillers, compelling enough to make you pay attention to politicians again. | July 2000


J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.