The novel opens with the protagonist, Richard Temple, enduring repeated sessions of torture at the hands of Nazi interrogators. It is the Second World War, and he has been captured in southern France while crossing the Spanish border. In his half-delusional state, he begins a review of his life. He recalls: his unhappy childhood and early education in the late teens and 1920s in England; his talent and development as a painter; his poverty stricken life as a struggling artist in 1930s London; his involvement with the world of art forgery; his failed affair with a beautiful woman; and his subsequent entry into the murky realm of espionage, which led to his capture.
O’Brian’s talent for character development and attention to detail are clearly evident in this novel, first published in 1962. He verbally paints a rich tapestry of the time period and creates a narrative atmosphere that captures the psychological landscape of the protagonist. Fans of the Aubrey-Maturin series will find this earlier novel revealing and compelling.