The Cambridge Theorem, by Tony Cape

After The Untouchable I couldn't resist this thriller based on the activities of the Cambridge spies. DS Derek Smailes is assigned to investigate the death of a graduate student at Cambridge, found hanged in his rooms. Simon Bowles was a brilliant but somewhat unstable mathematics student who spent his spare time using math, logic, and extensive research to find solutions to popular conundrums such as who actually killed President Kennedy. At the time of his death, Simon was looking into the Cambridge spy ring.

The consensus seems to be that Simon commited suicide and Smailes is pressured from all sides to wrap up the case. However, there are some things that don't add up. Smailes continues talking to the tutors and porters at the college, reading Simon's files, and trying to reconstruct what actually happened.

Smailes is an interesting character. Amicably separated from his wife, he has settled into a furnished flat, its recliner and ugly sofa a relief after his wife's demands that he weigh in on home decorating decisions. He has a thing about the U.S. and likes to listen to Willy Nelson and wear cowboy boots when off-duty. In the course of the investigation we learn a lot about what makes him tick and how his past informs his present life.

I found it hard to believe this is a first novel. It is so assured. Cape handles the suspense well, doling out clues and red herrings at the right intervals, leting us discover the inner lives of characters who could so easily have become stereotypes. He factors in class distinctions and town-versus-gown tensions with deceptive ease.

Surely the most difficult problem with a novel like this is figuring out how to incorporate the background information about the Cambridge ring. As a writer, you don't want to bore the many people who already know a great deal about Philby et al. Nor do you want to toss in large undigested chunks of research. At the same time, you don't want to lose the readers for whom it's all new, so you have to say something about it.

I'm happy to report that Cape handles this challenge masterfully. Even coming off of Banville's book with it all fresh in my mind, I didn't find the exposition boring. We learn about the spy ring's history in pieces, at the same time as Smailes and filtered through his consciousness and understanding.

The shifting alliances and uncertain allegiances kept me on my toes. I caught some clues and missed some others. Altogether, a most enjoyable read.

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