Book Review - The Lone Wolf at Cover by John Michell
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The Lone Wolf at Cover is a book for readers interested in espionage, international relations, and the many facets of human interaction. At its basic, the novel is a dark story of human frailty, one offering a fresh slant on the popular Cold War spy fiction genre. Its main character, Joe Lambert, is a British spy unburdened by outrageous talents. Beyond detailing in first-person his life and times as a spy during the Cold War, Lambert’s narrative is also infused with a human interest story tenuously biographical of the author reflecting office politics; internecine career ambition; and human foibles, limitations and imperfection. Actual historical backdrops give the novel further realism and anchor it to the Cold War period.

Lambert is an emotionally isolated man who in 1965, in an accident of UK political history, becomes recruit into the British Secret Intelligence Service. Over the ensuing twenty-five years, he battles his personal demons and hostile colleagues, firstly seeking career fulfillment before becoming an uncompromising avenger driven by the KGB’s murder of his first love. Lambert’s quest for revenge brings him into conflict with his own Service and the CIA. He also discovers he is a KGB recruitment target – and finds love for the second time. Lambert’s story is brought to its conclusion in 1990, while on a Top Secret mission in Moldova, at a time when the Soviet Union is preparing to implode and the end of the Cold War nears.

The Lone Wolf at Cover: Synopsis

The Lone Wolf at Cover is a Cold War spy fiction novel. It is not a novel for devotees of improbable characters. Rather it finds beauty, humour and pathos in bureaucratic intrigue. The book, thus, is reminiscent of some of the great works of British film and television, featuring the acid tongues and sardonic wit typically ascribed to Whitehall mandarins. The novel also employs the unique structural technique of adapting actual historical events in British politics and international affairs to create realistic frameworks anchoring its narrative to the Cold War era.

Indeed, it is against the backdrop of British politics circa 1964 that the main character Joe Lambert joins the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). He is a token recruit, reviled as a social inferior by some SIS others. Lambert prevails, yet becomes a driven careerist owing to ongoing relationship dysfunction. Posted to Jakarta, he meets Nought, a father-figure colleague in steep decline. Lambert heeds Nought’s warning he must marry to advance his career; but ignores his metaphor warning of the spy’s occupational hazard – The Lone Wolf at Cover – of being claimed by spying, rendered morally incompetent and left alone to pad across spying’s frozen landscape.

Back in London, a marriage of convenience occurs. After recruiting Katya, a KGB agent of rare value who is later executed by the KGB, Lambert is promoted and posted to New Delhi. This is the book’s watershed, where genres blend as Lambert transforms from dedicated careerist to obsessed avenger. Three elements drive the change: the end of Lambert’s marriage; Lambert’s meeting Agnes, an aid worker who becomes his first love; and Shukhov, a KGB General, ordering Agnes’s murder ostensibly to atone for the damage caused by Katya’s recruitment, but in truth only because of a secret personal vendetta against Lambert. When Lambert discovers the KGB killed Agnes, a story of two intersecting cases of secret revenge is triggered.

Lambert divines a need to be posted to Washington as SIS station head. A cynical anti-hero emerges. Using all the bureaucratic wiles at his disposal, Lambert goes to extremes to discredit his main rival for the Washington job and manipulate others in the SIS. For his part, Shukhov intends Lambert’s recruitment by Liliana, his handpicked Moldovan agent, who is to exploit Lambert’s emotional vulnerability. But first Shukhov instructs a subordinate to arrange Lambert’s posting to Washington and his ingratiation with the CIA, later discovering this is also Lambert’s ambition. Shukhov pretends his objective is to destroy the US–UK intelligence relationship.

Events strangely beneficial to Lambert start to happen, resulting in him securing the Washington posting. When it is finally apparent the Soviets are helping him, Lambert is unsure why but elects to use the assistance to gain admission to the CIA’s inner circle. He establishes that Shukhov gave the order to kill Agnes. But in the process, he severely tests his relationship with the CIA and infuriates his own service. Shukhov waits, hoping Lambert can recover his standing with the Americans. But by now a lifetime of heavy smoking has caught up with the General (the book’s anti-tobacco theme is its one foray into social commentary). Dying, Shukhov reluctantly despatches Liliana to recruit Lambert in a lesser capacity.

Liliana triggers fear of The Lone Wolf at Cover in Lambert leading to her becoming his second love. Lambert abandons his secret plan to kill Shukhov, forcefully resurrecting it when he discovers Liliana is a Soviet agent. Three subplots form: a plan to recruit Liliana as cover for a Top Secret defection operation known only to Lambert and three senior SIS officers whereby Shukhov is to be lured to a meeting with Lambert and Liliana in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau; Lambert’s restored secret plan to kill Shukhov; and a twist unknown to Lambert involving Digby, a senior SIS officer privy to the Top Secret operation to be played out in Chisinau.

When Lambert does meet Shukhov in Chisinau he finds he lacks the stomach to kill the Russian; while a gravely ill Shukhov, knowing the fall of the Soviet Union is imminent, has anticipated the defection operation, which he facilitates. Shortly after Shukhov dies, but not before revealing his secret crusade against Lambert related to the fact that Kayta, Lambert’s celebrated KGB recruit, was his illegitimate daughter. Liliana proves to be the target of Digby’s intrigue. She dies, shot by assassins.
A crushed Lambert returns to London, where the SIS quietly dismisses him. He takes a job with Agnes’s former employer and returns to Moldova, intent on finding Liliana’s body and giving her a proper burial. He is at once with both his loves and now at peace, no longer at risk of The Lone Wolf at Cover, the spy’s occupational hazard. Or is he…


I have not read many of war spy fiction books- so my knowledge in reviewing this kind of genre is pretty naive. This book looks unique from those contemporary books of war spy fiction- like a fresh breath amidst some mediocre spy books. This book has let me travel to different cities like London, Indonesia, U.S, and India along with the protagonist. The books start slow paced building crucial blocks and then gradually picks up the pace with the splendid storytelling. Only let down in this book is that it is too formal for most of the parts. It does take some time to digest the intense start.

War Spy Fiction nearly always relies on a clever observer to pry inside the minds and lives of its characters, to lay bare for the reader their deep motivations and intimate secrets.
John Michell’s wonderful The Lone Wolf at Cover complements and enhances Lambert’s first-person account.

Joe Lambert’s characterization is intense and beautiful and gives you a good hangover
There is a lot to learn from this book especially the detailed (almost insider) perspective of bureaucratic politics of British Secret service and the CIA.
Although the book is slow at times (which is required to build crucial building blocks), I recommend “The Lone Wolf at Cover” for those readers interested in what the Cold War spy versus spy is like.

Prakhyath Rai
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Prakhyath Rai

Admin at MerryBrains
Friends call me Prakz. I am a blogger, avid reader and bathroom singer. I take all my life decisions at showers like everyone else.
Prakhyath Rai
Reach me!