Review by Annabel
Let me explain. This Thursday, a film called Argylle reaches our cinema screens in the UK; you may even have seen the trailer (IMDB link here). This spy action comedy has an all-star cast featuring Henry Cavill as agent Argylle, supported by Bryce Dallas Howard as author Elly Conway, and Claudia Schiffer’s own cat, (yes! She’s married to the director, by the way). Directed by Brit Matthew Vaughn, he of the Kingsman series, it looks like it will be great fun, taking us forward from the Kingsman’s era to the modern day. The story revolves around a reclusive author who gets drawn into the world of espionage when she discovers her spy novels are happening in the real world – all very meta! As most of us would agree – or not – it’s usually better to read the book before seeing the film, so given a love of espionage novels, I rushed off to get a copy of the book, which comes emblazoned with a quote from Vaughn on the cover: ‘The Most incredible spy franchise since Ian Fleming’. Argylle as the new Bond? Really? (Although apparently Henry Cavill was shortlisted to be the new Bond at one stage, but was deemed too young.)
Given the hype, I crossed my fingers and dived in and I’ll say it up front, despite numerous moments of cinematic-style silliness and getting away with things, I just suspended my disbelief and thus I really enjoyed it!
However, it was soon clear that the novel has a rather different premise to the film. Save for Argylle and his colleague Wyatt, none of the characters listed in the film appear in the book, and there’s no meta high concept at all, except for Conway’s author’s picture in shadow, keeping her secret. There are conspiracy theories going round as to her identity – ‘is she Taylor Swift?’ is one.
Back to the book! What Conway gives us in this novel is Argylle’s origin story, how he becomes the super spy of the film, (and it has now been confirmed that the book will be used in a prequel spin-off).
Before we meet the younger Argylle though, we have the set up for the first big mission that he will ultimately be sent on. We meet the baddie of the piece, Vasily Federov, and his wife Irina. They are on a luxury train, touring the provinces of Russia, gaining votes for Vasily’s campaign to become the next Russian President on an ultra right wing ticket that will give Russia back to loyal Russians, and aiming for the rebirth of the Soviet Union. Federov, however, is an enigma – a self-made billionaire oligarch, he was abandoned as a baby and grew up unhappily in the USA, seeding his resentment of the West. He returned to Russia, found his birth parents, married the President’s daughter (there’s no love lost between them) and is now running for the top job. As a gift to the Russian people, he pledges to find and restore the fabled ‘Amber Room’ last seen crated up in WWII, current whereabouts unknown.
Then we meet Aubrey Argylle. Living simply on his own in a hut on the border of Thailand with Myanmar and Laos, working as a jungle tour guide in the ‘Golden Triangle’, he’s seemingly a young man of no real ambition. His parents are dead, murdered by one of the drugs cartels, and it is only now that he is piecing together the fact that they weren’t who he thought they were…
This day though, will change his life forever. He is in the jungle alone when he hears a plane about to crash and rushes to the scene, knowing that the cartel soldiers will have heard it too. There are two American DEA survivors who are captured by the cartel, and Argylle helps the recovery team that soon turn up to effect a rescue, before melting off back into the jungle.
But the arms of the CIA have a long reach, and Frances Coffey sees him as a potential recruit for her new black ops team that will go up against Federov in the end. Given a stark choice between mouldering in the jungle where he will be hunted down by the cartel or working for the CIA, what’s a man to choose?
We have a classic teambuilding scenario, and there will be countless barriers that Argylle (only Coffey calls him Aubrey) will have to face before being accepted by the rest of the team. There are friendships to be made, lost and remade too, with the machismo of Wyatt being Argylle’s biggest personality to go up against. There are training missons, and then it’s the real thing, the first step towards beating Federov to the hidden location of the Amber Room, and stealing the jewelled (and coded) bracelet he’d acquired for his wife, which is to be part of an exhibition of items reclaimed from the Nazi looters. In true Bondian style, this takes place in Monaco!
Each part of the mission is more dangerous than the previous one, and the Russians are always on their tail; could there be a mole in the team? I shan’t say more other than to confirm that Argylle and Wyatt survive, which we know from the film.
Federov’s storyline, interspersed between Argylle’s, jumps about timewise, but our intrepid spy’s timeline is straight-forward. Conway’s writing style is strong and pacy, and beyond the inherent banter and cameraderie between the team, a few in-jokes and nods towards Bond and Kingsman oeuvres, coupled with the cartoonish villainy of Federov and the grandiosity of the final lair, so to speak, the narrative isn’t deliberately comic, so in that it differs from what I’m expecting from the film.
I was amazed to discover that the Amber Room was real. It was a set of bejewelled and gilded panels with fossilised amber given to Peter the Great by the Prussian king in 1716 as a symbol of their alliance against Sweden. But it got into Nazi hands during Operation Barbarossa in 1941, and was disassembled and shipped to Konigsberg, Germany (now Kaliningrad back in Russia). Allied bombing likely destroyed it in 1944, but the conspiracy theorists still think it’s out there… I liked that Conway worked up an adventurous plot to suggest where it could be.
Argylle, the novel, is a great fun, well-written espionage thriller, the beginning – one hopes – of an entertaining series to come.
Annabel is a Co-founder and Editor of Shiny, and spy stories, be they fun, ultra-realistic or somewhere in between, are her favourite sort of thriller.
Elly Conway, Argylle (Bantam, 2024). 978-1787635913, 368pp., hardback.
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