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The Seeds of Treason by Ted Allbeury

First published in Great Britain in 1986; published by Dover on November 6, 2017

Jan Massey wants to be understood, so he agrees to tell his story to a reporter from the BBC. The interview takes place in his home in a remote part of Spain. Massey is a former MI6 agent who committed an indiscretion. The novel is his story.

Massey ran the Berlin office for MI6 after the war, a life marred only by a brief disastrous marriage until he met Anna Kolkov. Like Massey, she has Polish roots. Her husband, Alexei Kolkov, is a KGB officer in Berlin, which makes Massey’s affair with Anna rather dangerous. It’s also a bit unconvincing, since there seems little beyond their Polish roots to make them fall in love at first sight or to make Massey behave so impetuously. We are given to understand that Slavic passions are to blame, but the affair happens too quickly and too deeply to make me think that Massey would be such a fool. In any event, the affair gets Massey into a pickle before the novel reaches its midway point.

As the title suggests, traitors abound in The Seeds of Treason. Massey is getting information from a KGB agent named Kuznetsov who is, to some degree, a traitor to Russia, and from a greedy French spy who seems to be betraying everyone he can. Andrew Johnson, a member of the British military who is handling signals intelligence in Berlin under Massey’s watch, decides he’ll be more appreciated by the Russians than the British. He thinks his prostitute girlfriend will even like him better if he’s a Russian hero, but the girlfriend is also prepared to betray anyone who doesn’t pay her enough.

And then there’s an NSA mathematician/codebreaker named Jimbo Vick who isn’t knowingly a traitor, but chats without discretion when he’s in bed with his beautiful girlfriend. As with Massey, love is the source of betrayal. But it is Massey who is the biggest fish in the pond, and a great catch for the KGB if they can use his affair with Anna against him.

Ted Allbeury writes in a low-key, matter-of-fact style, a nice change from the hysteria that pervades so much American spy fiction. The novel lives up to its title by explaining how three different people become traitors, although Vick’s story, at least, seems to be thrown in to provide a third example. Vick’s story might be the most credible of the three but he plays a relatively small role in the story. The most convincing character development is given to Johnson. Whether or not his sudden decision to seek appreciation from the Russians that he can't get from the British is believable, he's such a self-centered creep that the reader will readily see him as someone who would betray his country.

Massey is a more likable character than either Johnson or Vick and, if I didn’t necessarily find his betrayal to be credible, I did appreciate Allbeury’s effort to make him sympathetic. Allbeury makes the point that when a government labels someone a traitor, its first order of business is to paint him as deplorable in all aspects of life, because the government can’t have people understanding why someone might betray the government or, even worse, supporting the betrayer. Not all traitors are deplorable, particularly when they betray a country that isn't your own. That's the lesson Allbeury tries to teach in The Seeds of Treason, and I think he does so successfully.

The novel’s ending seems realistic. This is the only Allbeury novel I’ve read (it seems to the third that Dover has returned to print), so I don’t have much basis for comparison, but I wouldn’t rank Allbeury with John le Carré or Len Deighton or Gerald Seymour, simply because those masters of British spy fiction are justly known for gripping stories and compelling characters. I would instead compare Allbeury to Clive Egleton, who wrote British spy novels that were pleasurable if a bit unexciting.


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