"The Private Life of Spies" by Alexander McCall Smith is a marvellous book that shows off its author's accomplishment as a story-teller at its very best. I suspect that very few who read this review will need any persuasion about Alexander McCall Smith's qualities as a writer. He has, after all, written over a hundred books which have sold in vast numbers, including fiction, non-fiction and children's books. However you look at it, this is an outstanding book that will live long in the memory.
"The Private Life of Spies" comes over as a whimsical exercise in research and writing by an author who wanted to try something a little different. What you find between the covers are five stories about spies and espionage involving different people at different times and in different places. The author says in his introduction that "These stories are part fiction and part non-fiction" and some seem to be based around the lives and deeds of real people, with suitable embroidery for the sake of a good tale.
The book opens with the story of a reluctant German (male) spy who parachuted into England in 1943 disguised as a nun and immediately found refuge in a nearby convent. Then we move to Algiers in 1924 and the profoundly self-serving espionage activities of two men, members of the opposing Ottoman and Italian secret services. Then it's a leap to Argyll in 1984 and one man's dealings with Soviet spies. The fourth story covers the years from 1934 to 1947 and has as its central characters Donald Maclean, British diplomat and Soviet spy; and Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, an Australian Scot who served as British ambassador in various places including Moscow and Washington. I'd only heard of Sir Archibald in connection with the famous letter he wrote to the foreign secretary in 1943 about the name of a Turkish colleague. It was fascinating to find out more about him.
The book concludes with the modern tale of a student at the French Pontifical College in the Vatican who... well it's hard to say much more without giving away some key elements. Suffice it to say that this story is quite different to the other four and reads partly as a spy tale and partly as a theological investigation by the author. It very nicely rounds off this collection.
I've sometimes found in the past that picking up and reading the latest book in one of Alexander McCall Smith's long-running series (and he has a number of them) is a little like turning on the car radio and finding it's playing Radio 4's "The Archers". You know that what you are reading/listening to is of high quality; has proven longevity; and has huge numbers of fans. But you can get the sense that, as an outsider unfamiliar with the back story and the characters, you are not getting the full benefit. "The Private Life of Spies" allows you to appreciate Alexander McCall Smith's writing without requiring prior knowledge to thoroughly enjoy the experience.