I decided to follow my candy up with a novel by Lawrence Durrell. I consider Durrell a brilliant writer – the word choice, the plot, the flow, the dialogue, the descriptions… His books are everything I love in a novel. What’s more is that Durrell wrote about what he knew. His life was like living a novel.
His real life involvement in politics and travel couldn’t help but work their way into his fiction. He with the Foreign Office. He lived in Egypt, Greece, Yugoslavia, England, India, etc. He disliked English culture but has a knack for detailing it quite well.
Durrell is best known for the Alexandria Quartet. The first three of the four tell the same story but from different perspectives. You get a love story, a political thriller, an action story. The final of the series, Clea, advances the story and brings it to a close. I remember reading the quartet in undergrad and falling madly in love with Durrell.
I picked up White Eagles Over Serbia (1957) at the library sale. It was published just before the Alexandria Quartet and is pretty much defined as a spy thriller. The story revolves around Methuen, a spy for the British Secret Service and his mission in Serbia. It is reportedly based on Durrell’s own experiences with the Foreign Office.
The novel opens with Methuen, having just returned from the jungles of Malaya and craving the sound of English, hanging out in a private lounge. He simply wanted human company. The reader learns of Methuen’s involvement in the Awkward Shop (the British Secret Service) and how it was his ability to speak many language, “a gift of tongues,” that made him a most popular spy. Methuen essentially gets tricked into deciding to do the mission in Yugoslavia. The trickery is that Dombey convinces Methuen that he really wants to go – and maybe deep down he does long for more adventure.
A fellow spy had recently been murdered in the hillsides. It is suspected that the underground Royalists group, the White Eagles, was behind it. Dombey wants Methuen to get in there and figure out what the White Eagles are doing that is worth killing over.
Methuen sets up camp in a cave with a snake. (A snake that basically saves his hide later.) He waits for someone to find him while fishing. (What he had HOPED to be doing in Scotland.) The man alone in a cave quickly finds himself sought after by the Communists and the Royalists. A lucky chain of events helps Methuen join the White Eagles as one of them. It is then that Methuen learns their secret: they are trying to get the gold that was stolen from the banks years ago out of the mountains and out of Yugoslavia. This gold can give them the army they need to overthrow the Communists. Methuen finds himself weighed down in gold as he joins the White Eagles in their walk to get the gold out of Yugoslavia undetected.
He nearly dies doing it. The White Eagles are not successful. When he returns to England, he finds a few of the coins in his pockets that support his story. There’s a woman involved, Walden as a codebook, and poetry that sends the White Eagles into action.
It is an artfully written spy novel.