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Visibility    by Boris Starling order for
by Boris Starling
Order:  USA  Can
Random House, 2007 (2007)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Ex-soldier and habitual loner Herbert Smith feels 'at best tolerated and at worst resented' by his colleagues of the Metropolitan Police Murder Squad (in New Scotland Yard) in 1952 London, having worked as an outstanding Watcher for MI5 until his then boss, Richard de Vere Green, made him a scapegoat for his own incompetence after Burgess and Maclean escaped surveillance and defected to Moscow.

When a call comes in close to the end of their shift, to deal with a floater in Hyde Park, his peers are happy to leave it to Herbert. The body turns out to be that of a practicing homosexual (illegal at the time), and a murder victim. A diver is called in to search the pond, and so we meet a most intriguing character. Young Hannah Mortimer 'could have been a biblical queen, brought early to her throne.' A Hungarian Jew, she's blind, forthright, almost recklessly brave, and very competent - and Herbert wants to see more of her. The search recovers a ring and a jacket, the latter identifying the victim as Max Stensness, assistant to a genetic researcher - leading to fascinating arguments about the Pandora's box of DNA research.

It was the height of the Cold War in 1952, and also the year when the Great Fog rolled into London, disrupting city life and essential services. The plot thickens along with the fog when Herbert discovers that the dead man was an MI5 informant who reported to his old nemesis, de Vere Green. He stumbles across a Russian spy and learns that the evening he died, Stensness had set up meetings with several people - including a CIA agent - about 'something which would change the world.'

In parallel with the investigation, Herbert meets Hannah again and learns about the horrors in her past, and the twin sister who didn't survive atrocities inflicted by the Angel of Death. Herbert was one of the soldiers who arrived in Belsen in April 1945, and what he saw there stayed with him and changed him. Hearing Hannah's story, 'he had never felt closer to any human being.' But soon they're both embroiled in new violence, and a race to foil a plot involving man's least desirable traits - 'folly, hubris, ambition, and greed.'

In Visibility, Starling gives us a wonderfully multi-layered thriller, imbued with all the atmosphere of the 50s (from class consciousness and homophobia to a film review of The Road to Bali), with unique, engaging, and very real characters, and suprises right up to the very end. Don't miss this one!

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