1947. Threadbare London endures the bleakest, coldest winter for decades. Food rationing is worse than during the war. Coal supplies run out. The Thames freezes over.

Icelight (Peter Cotton 3) by Aly Monroe

Icelight (Peter Cotton 3) by Aly Monroe

Against a background of black ice, blackouts and the black market, agent Peter Cotton is seconded to Operation Sea-snake. MI5 is in the grip of civil war; MI6 is riddled with traitors. Unsure who to trust – or even who is pulling the strings – Cotton, ever the outsider, must protect an atomic scientist caught up in a vicious homophobic witch-hunt, limit the damage caused by a bully-boy MP, rely on a rent-boy informer and, despite the murderous attentions of a couple of Glasgow razor boys, embark on a ruthless hunt of his own.

If I was to use a single word to describe my experience reading Aly Monroe’s latest spy thriller Icelight (Peter Cotton 3) it would be, quite simply, exhausting! In fact, to be fair, I’d also add magnificent and spellbinding to the mix but then that would class as three words and my opening line a wash! So why exhausting? Imagine going to the cinema and watching an incredibly complex film for three hours – I’m not talking James Cameron’s Titanic here – eating a cornetto in the interval and then doing it all again. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Icelight!

With a wonderfully evocative and intelligent narrative Aly Monroe paints a bleak picture of London in the late 1940’s. Hit by an energy sapping cold snap that finds Britain on her knees, the country is not only at the mercy of a harsh British winter but the lack of fuel and food rations combine to leave thousands out of work and struggling to stay warm. A class divide never more evident, money talks and while the affluent drink champagne, vodka and Poully Fume as if it’s going out of fashion, the impoverished simply make do with limited water, food substitutes and coloured wine!

Icelight, the third instalment in the Peter Cotton series, is a grim examination of trust, or the lack thereof, in the intelligence sector both home and abroad. MI5 aren’t talking to MI6, special branch are involved, the Russians are there too, high level lawyers doing what they do best to keep the mighty out of jail and Peter Cotton is struggling to cope as he attempts to make sense of a well oiled internal machine hell-bent on obstructing the outsider at every turn.

To the right of Purley Way were rows of light-engineering factories, warehouses and car showrooms and garages. Along on the left was the entrance to the white, half-Art Deco Croydon Airport and the similarly styled Airport Hotel. They turned in and parked.

‘Take my bags in, will you driver?’ said Ayrtoun.

The driver got out. Ayrtoun turned towards Cotton.

‘I’m sorry you’re on the Tinkerbell detail,’ he said. ‘But the Americans want you. And I agreed. Perhaps not for the same reasons. They think you’re honest and direct.’ Ayrtoun paused. ‘I have the impression they may even think you’re slightly prickly and puritanical – like woollen underwear. They’re quite frantic about traitors, fifth columnists, the enemy within, and they’re particularly frantic we’re not doing much about ours. They’re also brewing up a witch-hunt of their own, an unholy alliance of ambitious demagogues, politicians – you should see some of the crop just elected – unscrupulous newspapers, various evil-minded churches anxious to save their choirboys for themselves and, of course, any number of intelligence agencies.’

Characterisation is incredibly well thought out and structured throughout, in fact so much so that I did find myself turning back the pages on more than one occasion to remind myself who was who. In a book as complex as this a brief “who’s who” at the beginning of the novel would have been a huge help!

Cotton is a colourful character who is a constant throughout the book. A confident, manipulative and private spy he knows who he is and what he wants from life. I found his relationship with Anna – a Jew from Czechoslovakia – incredibly entertaining to say the least! I’m still uncertain as to what actually went on between the two and Monroe I guess allows the reader to make their own decisions as to what actually occurred! His relationship with his father was interesting and although we only get a glimpse of their relationship, it was more than enough for me to know I would have dearly loved to have spent more time in their company. More than anything, I came away certain Cotton wants to do the right thing, he shows a compassionate side, despite the industry he’s in, and tries to help those less fortunate – to a degree!

An incredibly accomplished author, Monroe pulls you in from the start and I swear I felt a chill every time Cotton stepped out in the cold night air or when he placed a blanket on the window surround to keep the cold out! If you’re a fan of the spy thriller genre, Triumph 1800’s or Britain at an industrial standstill in the 1940’s then this is without a shadow of a doubt the book for you. Evocative and captivating this is one spy thriller I’ll want to read again, if only to make sense of what I missed first time around! Icetastic!

Published by John Murray Icelight is available in Hardcover & Kindle.

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