THE SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER
Vienna, 1913. Lysander Rief, a young English actor, sits in the waiting room of the city's preeminent psychiatrist as he anxiously ponders the particularly intimate nature of his neurosis. When the enigmatic, intensely beautiful Hettie Bull walks in, Lysander is immediately drawn to her, unaware of how destructive the consequences of their subsequent affair will be. One year later, home in London, Lysander finds himself entangled in the dangerous web of wartime intelligence - a world of sex, scandal and spies that is slowly, steadily, permeating every corner of his life...
Boyd excels in portraying ordinary British citizens caught up in pivotal historical events. Like Logan Montstuart, the protagonist of Any Human Heart, and Sally Gilmartin, the former espionage agent in Restless, young actor Lysander Rief has a small but crucial part to play before and during WWI. In 1913 Vienna, having gone to consult a Freudian psychoanalyst (one of Freud's former students, in fact) for a sexual problem, he encounters Hettie Bull, a highly strung expat Englishwoman of potent carnal enchantment. Though Hettie lives with someone and Rief is engaged to be married to an English actress, they begin an affair. But she accuses him of raping her and he's arrested, only to be rescued by British diplomatic officials, kicking off a web of intrigue that enmeshes Rief in ever more mysterious circumstances. The action moves to wartime France, Geneva, and London, where Rief is made to pay for his freedom by undertaking dangerous espionage missions. His continuing involvement with Hettie, over whom he breaks off his engagement, and his attraction to a French agent who almost kills him, sustains a strand of romantic suspense. On a deeper level, Boyd depicts the social and sexual hypocrisies of fin-de-si cle Vienna and the insidious old-boy network of the British Establishment. He hews closely to his protagonist, whose perspective becomes increasingly unreliable, echoing the book's epigrams about truth and lies from Hemingway and Sophocles. Set pieces like Lysander's dead-of-night mission in no-man's-land, and his surreal experience watching a graceful zeppelin drop its bombs on central London create the atmospheric accuracy for which Boyd is justly praised. As in all of his novels, Boyd speculates about luck and chance and the unpredictable events that can determine a person's life. With its adroit plot twists and themes of deception and betrayal, this is an absorbing spy novel that raises provocative questions.