The Most Difficult Thing
Charlotte Philby
Borough Press, £12.99

The granddaughter of double-agent Kim Philby was never going to write a simple, clear-cut spy procedural. Speculating on her grandfather’s motivations for betraying his country led her to write The Most Difficult Thing, a novel focusing on the kinds of damaged people who end up becoming spies, and the equally flawed ones whose ranks they infiltrate. Noble motives of civic duty or altruism are secondary here to the psychology that draws certain types of people to lead lives of deception.

We first meet magazine editor Anna Witherall as she sets off on a fateful journey to her father-in-law’s home in Greece, having decided to complete her mission and then disappear, knowing she will never see her husband and twin daughters again. As we delve into Anna’s past, we find that marriage and motherhood has been a mask, an identity she now intends to slough off.

David Witherall had unrequited feelings for Anna when they were students, and when her charismatic and persuasive lover, Harry, proposes that she work her way into David’s life and steal secrets linking his father’s company to toxic waste deaths, she accepts with surprisingly few qualms. Anna’s life has been blighted, it turns out, by a terrible incident in her childhood, after which her parents withdrew their affection and have kept an icy distance from her ever since. Having left her original name, Marianne, behind with her mother and father, Anna is a conflicted mix of detachment and longing, allowing her to method-act an entire marriage in order to infiltrate David’s family and secure the evidence Harry needs to bring his father to justice.

Which isn’t to say she’s the worst person in the book, by any means. The strain takes a severe emotional toll on her, which, exacerbated by post-partum depression, brings her close to breaking point and makes her easy prey for a husband who uses classic gaslighting strategies to make her think she’s losing her mind. It’s hard to tell just how much David and his millionaire father Clive suspect, and we’re also kept guessing about the motivations of the secondary narrator, Maria, a close childhood friend of David’s from Greece, who becomes nanny to their daughters and has her own reasons for keeping an eye on the family. But we do know that she’s noticed Anna’s “self-destructive” streak and, like Anna, has observed David becoming more like his father and exhibiting the sense of entitlement that comes with power.

Interspersing scenes of oppressive domesticity with scheming intrigue and pulse-racing tension, Philby sketches a dark and confusing world in which loyalty is always divided, morality is blurred, the fear of discovery is a constant, nagging anxiety and only a sliver of the broader picture can ever be seen. Anna is not an easy person to like, but Philby works hard to earn her protaganist our sympathy and understanding by keeping the psychologies of her characters at the heart of their cat-and-mouse games. It’s a carefully constructed study of duplicity in which the uneasy mood of moral compromise and betrayal never abates.