Oh my, Darling: the former chancellor aims for Brown

Atlantic, £19.99

by Marc Sidwell

It’s not the economy, stupid. The reason to read Alistair Darling’s account of his time as chancellor of the exchequer is to see exactly how far in he chooses to stick the knife. Happily, his autopsy of the Gordon Brown years at times seems almost gleefully brutal, especially as he confirms that Brown tried to sack him in 2009 and replace him with Ed Balls. As Darling puts it: “Fighting economic and financial fires was the easy bit of the job. I was tired of the atmosphere of feuding and the perpetual sniping.” In closing, he adds that Brown “seemed to have no conception of the effects of his sometimes appalling behaviour on those close to him, or of the political damage his way of operating – indirectly, through a cabal – could cause.”

Still, however entertaining this sort of political drive-by is to witness, it shouldn’t allow Darling to distract attention from his own culpability for the economic decisions made in that period, notably introducing the 50p tax rate. In the one page that addresses this issue, he tries to shift all the blame onto Brown. That won’t do. The change took place on Darling’s watch, and he chose not to stand up against it in public. When he admits “the negative message we were sending out on aspiration contradicted everything we had argued for over the past fifteen years,” it was a message he agreed to deliver.

But for the real value of this book, leaf straight to the index, where under Brown, Gordon you will find the gory details of “discontent among cabinet members and leadership challenges”; “divisions over economy between Darling and”; and “wanting to remove Darling from chancellorship and decision to let him stay”. Enjoy.

Sceptre, £7.99

by Zoe Strimpel

This classic 1974 spy novel starring intelligence expert George Smiley – the first in the Karla Trilogy – has just been released as a film starring Gary Oldman and Colin Firth and has earned rave reviews at the Venice Film Festival. It’s Le Carre’s masterful handling of the intersection between British reserve and real danger that drives the discerning thriller-lovers to distraction. Now that the film is bringing attention back to the novel for those of us who didn’t experience the classic 1970s BBC series with Alec Guinness (or this year’s exhaustive Radio 4 adaptation with Simon Russell Beale), Hodder has released a special edition.

The plot hinges on the discovery of a secret agent in the highest echelon of intelligence, known as the Circus.

British agent Ricki Tarr discovers, through an affair with the wife of a Moscow Centre intelligence officer, that there’s a high-ranking Soviet mole within the Circus, the elite echelon of British intelligence. Once alerted, spy boss Lacon enlists Peter Guillam and retired agent George Smiley to investigate – without Circus leadership finding out.

Smiley, who seems “breathtakingly ordinary”, is recalled from forced retirement and shows, once again, that he is anything but. Spying on spies is never going to be straightforward, but this labyrinthine novel is well-managed and fluent as it pits Smiley against his Cold War rival Karla, in what is surely one of the great struggles in all 20th century fiction.

Like so much other Le Carre, this book is like a racehorse: fast-paced, good pedigree, incredibly lean and very well put together.

Harper Collins, £20

by Zoe Strimpel

Moving forwards 30 years, Israeli-born Gabriel Allon is one of the great spy characters in modern times, something of a fusion of James Bond and Jason Bourne; consequently Allon books by former Middle East foreign correspondent Daniel Silva are frequent New York Times bestsellers. Allon is unique, however: intensely brave and suave in all matters of intelligence, yes, but obsessed with all things beautiful – he’s a master art restorer as well as a spy.

In this, the 11th Allon story, Gabriel and his beautiful Venetian wife (what other type is there for a spy) visit London for a pleasant weekend only to bear witness to a suicide attack. Haunted by his failure to stop the massacre of innocents, Gabriel returns to his isolated cottage on the cliffs of Cornwall, until a summons brings him to Washington and he finds himself at the heart of the war on global terror.

At the centre of the threat is an American-born cleric in Yemen to whom Allah has granted “a beautiful and seductive tongue.” Gabriel and his team devise a daring plan to destroy the network of death from the inside, and it’s risky, to say the last. Gabriel’s bloody past comes to the fore as he forms a dangerous alliance with a reclusive Saudi heiress and art collector, the daughter of an old enemy.

Cutting between the corridors of power in Washington, to the glamorous auction houses of New York and London, to the terrifying expanse of the Saudi desert, the book’s imagery is rich and tense, and the final twist will leave you haunted long after you put the book down.