Author of the Month

Name: Alan Judd

First Novel: A Breed of Heroes

Most Recent Book: Queen and Country

'A frightening and compelling beautifully written novel.'

In the peaceful towns and villages of England, Cleaner Bob is washing windows, and people are dying in sudden and unexpected circumstances. When it becomes clear that the victims have a common history as Russian defectors, foul play is suspected and a hunt begins to locate their assailant, the lethal poison that killed them, and the mole who is leaking their locations.

In a race against time, only one man has the connections and experience to crack the case before more people perish. Charles Thoroughgood, former head of MI6, is enjoying retirement in the Oxfordshire hamlet he calls home when the call comes in. A man of duty, he agrees to take part in a mission that will lead him into the heart of enemy territory and threaten to undermine the very values he holds most dear.

Tense, engrossing and terrifyingly believable, the latest Charles Thoroughgood novel is a timely and brilliant reminder that Alan Judd is a master of the spy thriller and a writer of the very highest quality.

The thing about highlighting an espionage book like ‘Queen and Country’ is trying to write a review without giving anything away. It is a minefield, not the kind of explosive ones, but Judd’s novel is full of subtleties that one worries about giving anything away.

Judd uses the events of the Salisbury poisonings as the basis for his tale. Someone is leaking details of Russian defectors and they are being killed by a new chemical, more effective than Novichok. Thoroughgood is brought back in to the fold to investigate this spate of killings. I loved Throughgood who is unassuming, but also a man who should not be dismissed lightly. He sees everything and understands more than some give him credit.

With the help of Sonia and Tickeye, this triumvirate slowly peels away the layers to find the truth. This is a slim novel compared to others, but there is not a word wasted, not a sentence that is superfluous. Judd delivers his story with the modicum of economy and it is all the punchier for that. I greatly enjoyed Tickeye, who felt like a form of Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, a man who is comfortable dispatching those he feels are in his way. There feels a moral backbone to Judd’s story, this isn’t about the good and the bad, but about those who vibrate between the two. As with all great espionage novels, you never really know who to trust. ‘Queen and Country’ is a novel that makes you turn those pages, however, at the end makes you think about the uncertain world we live in today. A frightening and compelling beautifully written novel.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) In the late 1980s, there was the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the end of the Cold War, it was mooted that the spy novel would flounder. Having worked in the Foreign Office, was there a general feeling that the former USSR was no longer a threat? One of your characters wants to defect and another is given the option, but is too afraid of eyes on her due to her high profile. Was there ever any feeling of bureaucracy in Russia, or has the old KGB, now FSB always been in control of the populace?
There was a widespread perception throughout the Foreign Office and Whitehall that the former Soviet Union no longer posed the threat it had. For a time this was true, though there were always some who maintained that – echoing Gerry Adams’s words about the IRA – ‘it hasn’t gone away, you know.’ There was speculation about the future of spy novel, most (nearly all?) of which drew on the Cold War and WW2. However, Irish Republican terrorism and the growth in international terrorism culminating in 9/11 provided plenty of exploitable material, while there was still public appetite for the Cold War and WW2. The current political situation, with Russia behaving increasingly like a rogue state, is an obvious gift to spy novelists.
2) Mikhail Gorbachev died last week and is noted as being more willing than previous leaders for his country to be open with the rest of the world. Putin seems more willing to tear down bridges with the West than build them. You use the basis of the Salisbury poisoning of the Skripals in 2018 for ‘Queen and Country’ with a new deadlier chemical agent called ‘Konyets’. Is chemical warfare the new danger?
It was indeed the Salisbury poisonings that sparked the idea for Q&C. I visited the scene and was struck by how relatively easy it would be to conduct invisible assassinations in this way, given unknown or hard-to-trace chemical agents. More than that, with suitable preparation and careful application, it should be possible to commit mass murder by deploying chemical agents in public places. This is not new – the 1990s nerve gas attacks on the Tokyo underground would have killed many more if the murderers had had a more effective distribution system.
3) Charles Thoroughgood is the former chief of MI6, but even in retirement appears not to be able to rest on his laurels as he is brought back into the circle due to the deaths of Russian defectors by an assassin named ‘Cleaner Bob’. As with le Carré’s George Smiley, Charles Thoroughgood is known in his field, but also feels an unassuming chap who blends into the background when needed. Was this a requirement for working in MI6?
I chose Thoroughgood’s relatively unassertive personality because having a central figure through whose eyes the reader sees means that other characters and events show up more vividly. If your central figure is more imposing then the story is more about him or her and the others fade a bit. I’m not aware that being unassuming was a requirement for working in MI6 though it’s easy to imagine circumstances in which it could be useful.
4) Thoroughgood makes a triumvirate with Sonia who is Head of Security at MI6 and Tickeye who seems to be the rogue element in this partnership. I really loved the savvy Sonia and unpredictable Tickeye. Will we see more of them in your next book?
I’m not writing another Thoroughgood at the moment but if I do I’d happily include them (Sonia has featured before, anyway). Both were inspired by real people.
5) With your experience as a writer, what advice would you give to anyone attempting their first novel?
Firstly, find something you really want to write about rather than something you simply feel you could. Secondly, in Raymond Chandler’s words, ‘Don’t get it right, get it written.’ Thirdly, don’t balk at re-writing. Many of us re-write better than we write.
6) If you were stranded on a desert island, which three crime novels would you want with you?
Difficult, this, because there’s so much to chose from and because there must be plenty of worthy candidates I haven’t read. Today’s choice would be:

Somerset Maugham - Ashenden Papers,

Joseph Conrad - The Secret Agent

John le Carre’s - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tomorrow’s might be different.