The London Bookshop Affair: A Novel of the Cold War

Written by Louise Fein
Review by Ben Bergonzi

This Cold War thriller is mainly set in 1962 but also has clear roots in WW2. The principal character is Celia Duchesne, who works at an antiquarian bookshop in The Strand, central London, managed by a strangely vague American woman who seems to have plenty of money and several odd male visitors. One of these is a handsome American, and we see from his point of view, as well as Celia’s, the development of their romance. Although his true role in life is something only he knows, ultimately she still gets the better of him.

An alternate narrative focuses on Jeannie, a girl in London in 1942 also involved with an American. Her harsh experiences lead her to becoming an SOE agent under a female minder whose character seems accurately modelled on the enigmatic real-life spy mistress Vera Atkins. Many other characters have real-life originals.

The busy plot takes in CND protests at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the callous way babies were taken from unmarried mothers, an immensely poignant scene in a concentration camp, and many more evocative incidents. The book is an ingenious recreation of its twin periods, and the research is generally thorough. There are a few small points to correct: for instance, it was impossible at that time to see the outside of the circular building that forms the British Museum Reading Room, due to other buildings surrounding it. In the first half of the book the author’s keenness not to disclose any of her characters’ many levels of deception can slightly confuse.

However, this is without doubt a well-written and psychologically acute book – I enjoyed Celia’s observations of the differences between the English and Americans, and her wry comments about the male attitude toward women. Enthusiastically recommended.