Mark Dawson’s efficient 80s Cold War thriller, set mostly in a wintery and unwelcoming Berlin contains expected elements – a solitary spy hero on a seemingly impossible mission, an alluring KGB agent-cum-fixer, complete with glossy red lips and platinum-blonde hair (think Charlize Theron with a Russian accent, drawn by Patrick Nagel) and a light sprinkling of references to music, cars, and fashions of the time, though nothing too obscure.
The plot zips by without fuss – readable in a mere 3 hours – perhaps a spoiled for me, following as it did a dip into the work of a master stylist of the genre, John le Carre. Readers expecting incisive political commentary and rich characterisation are likely to be disappointed.
The Vault’s protagonists and its peripheral characters follow clearly signposted tracks: Harry Mackintosh, the central British secret service agent, has a number of motivations, among them vengeance. Early in the novel, a meticulously planned operation goes swiftly and spectacularly awry, resulting in the grisly death of another agent, Elodie. It isn’t a spoiler to note that Elodie serves only two functions in The Vault’s plot – to die and to give Mackintosh something to emote about in the few passages granting him an interior life beyond his work.
Though Mackintosh’s curious blankness and almost total focus, rendered in brisk, no-frills prose, may be desirable in his highly specialised line of work, such qualities render him forgettable after The Vault’s closing sentences.
Memorable, though no less a cliché is Mackintosh’s chosen partner in his latest Berlin mission: Jimmy Walker, bank robber extraordinaire, accidental IRA arms runner, ex-boxer and family man. Through Walker’s perspective, The Vault’s tension blooms at times into a bleak, occasionally absurdist, humour.
Walker, though an unwilling participant, takes well to the task assigned him, which features enough twists and double-crossings to keep the casual reader interested and encounters with a soft-spoken sadist of a Nazi-turned-Stasi general who near duck-marches onto the page from Raiders of the Lost Ark. With little nuance and no redeeming features, his fate is satisfying, but perhaps unlikely. In a cursory nod to realism, The Vault also offers an exploration of the hardships endured behind the Iron Curtain, for those not quite old enough to remember the Berlin Wall and its destruction.
Also familiar from any espionage thriller worth the read is a caustic, welcome touch of class tension: one of the few occasions Mackintosh feels much beyond righteous rage, manly grief at Elodie’s death and irritation at the incompetence of those around him is during a meeting with an aging politician in a private gentleman’s club.
More compelling is the prevailing sense that all the tradecraft Mackintosh, Walker and others might bring to the streets of Berlin, Moscow or London proves somewhat thankless: events being constantly manipulated from much higher up and subject to very human, very mundane failings.
The Vault neatly sets up an origin story for a likely series of novels surrounding the Group Fifteen spy ring – enjoyable as an entirely conventional, entertaining story in its own right.