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  • How to Betray Your Country Review
  • How to Betray your Country |  James Wolff
How to Betray Your Country Review

‘A clever, grown-up spy novel, full of intrigue and shot through with a mischievous wit.” Charles Cumming, author of BOX 88 and The Trinity Six



The Times: Best New Thrillers for April 2021: “Grieving for his dead wife, drinking until he keels over and expelled from MI5 for leaking secrets it sat on for political reasons, Augustus Drummond is in a bad place. Then on the flight to a dead-end job in Istanbul he spots someone else under pressure. His hunch that it’s a new British recruit for Islamic State pays off. But is it smart to take the man’s place after he is arrested? Gus is given the task of tracking an Iranian scientist but he comes to realise that his Islamic State handler may also not be who he seems — and his real plans much more dangerous for the undercover spy.

This is loosely a sequel to Beside the Syrian Sea and like it, it draws no doubt on James Wolff’s experience of “government service” for its plausible portrait of intelligence work. Pace and plot, though, are perhaps of less interest to him than psychology, and the ending is not unexpected if credible. Wolff’s examination of the crises of conscience caused by spying, however, make this a distinctly more thought-provoking novel than is customary in the genre. Turkish delight.” The Times


"Almost any promising writer of spy fiction can expect at some point to be called the ‘next Le Carré’, an accolade even more promiscuously applied since the death of the master. James Wolff has immediate credentials to jump the queue, since, like Le Carré, he uses a pseudonym and claims to work at the Foreign Office — though his familiarity with surveillance techniques suggests a slightly different employer.

How to Betray Your Country (Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99) arrives as the second in a planned trilogy, hard on the heels of Wolff’s striking debut, Beside the Syrian Sea. August Drummond is a former British intelligence officer, cashiered for insubordination after the sudden death of his tricky but entirely beloved wife. On a flight to Turkey, he impetuously decides to impersonate a recruit of Islamic extremists who’s then arrested on landing, and in this guise Drummond meets the man’s controller.

A cat and mouse struggle ensues, between Drummond’s efforts to uncover the target of his terrorist assignment and the inevitability of his own exposure. As tension mounts we meet a series of vivid minor characters, including an especially awful former colleague. The story’s Turkish setting is evocatively portrayed, and the prose throughout manages to be of the highest calibre yet elegantly inconspicuous. Two bull’s-eyes from two throws suggest the arrival of a major talent.Spectator



STARRED REVIEW: "Wolff’s brilliant sequel to 2018’s Beside the Syrian Sea finds August Drummond, whose wife recently died in a traffic accident, sacked by British intelligence after striking a fellow officer during an inquest into August’s possible culpability in a series of Robin Hood incidents using classified material for the greater good. On a plane to Istanbul, where August is headed for a lackluster new job, he spots a fellow passenger who’s acting like an Islamic State recruit. On a whim, August assumes the man’s identity when he’s arrested at the airport. Securing a message that the hapless man has discarded, August goes to the assigned meeting place and ends up on a private quest to infiltrate what he assumes is an IS operation. His seeming competence begins to fail him as his obsession with his wife’s death and his recourse to alcohol take their toll. August narrates his own downfall, allowing readers to be as surprised as him when events take unexpected turns. Memos and communiques from British intelligence officials fill in the backstory. In August, Wolff skillfully portrays an espionage agent on the verge of losing himself to his demons. This is spy fiction like no other." Publishers Weekly


August Drummond is also a former spy who gets suddenly activated. When Drummond witnesses a passenger who travelled on the same plane getting arrested at Istanbul airport he searches a nearby dustbin on a whim. There he finds instructions for a meeting in a cemetery. He is soon back in a deadly game, posing as a recruit for Isis while manoeuvring between British and Turkish intelligence. How to Betray Your Country (Bitter Lemon) is the second novel by James Wolff, a pseudonym for a British government employee — one who clearly knows this world first hand. Drummond is an engaging protagonist, a recent widower thrown out of the Secret Intelligence Service for insubordination, fighting and security breaches. There is rather too much drinking as Drummond drowns his grief in a lake of booze, but the story is skilfully, and credibly told. Wolff has a fine eye for detail, both of people and places, and his portrayal of Istanbul as a spy capital is evocative and convincing. When Drummond smokes a rooftop cigarette with Youssef, a Syrian refugee, “Cranes jostled around them like the frames of half-built minarets, and red-tiled roofs fell sharply down to the water’s edge.Financial Times


 “An absolutely cracking spy thriller with a difference, this is one to put to the top of your reading pile. Disgraced spy August Drummond is up to his neck in trouble when he steps into the middle of an Islamic State plot. Author James Wolff (a pseudonym) has worked for the British government for over ten years. There is an undeniably sharp edge to this story that feels all too real, and yet the fabulous writing ensured I couldn’t determine what was outrageously inventive or shockingly authentic. One thing I would definitely recommend, and that’s starting with the first in this trilogy, Beside the Syrian Sea. While you could read How to Betray Your Country as a standalone, to fully understand what has come before is an important part of this tale. August is a loose cannon with a conscience, the underlying loss and sadness that directs his every move is clearly felt. And yet, there is an underlying wit, smirk, and dark humour that skulks through the pages. This is a story that skips and flits and burrows and teases. As the file excerpts filled in missing information and as the plot sky-rocketed towards its conclusion I became more and more consumed. A LoveReading Star Book, How to Betray Your Country is ever so smart, provocative, and thought-provoking, it's also thoroughly entertaining. It comes with the hugest of thumbs up from me.” LoveReading


"In James Wolff’s How to Betray Your Country, recently widowed and “comprehensively disgraced” former spy August Drummond, 41, is on a plane to Istanbul to start a new private-sector job when he notices another passenger behaving suspiciously. The man is arrested shortly after their flight lands—but not before he has a chance to duck into the airport’s bathroom, which August subsequently searches. In the trash is a book containing a note about a meeting in Feriköy cemetery later that night. Old habits die hard, and August is desperate for something to distract him from his grief, so he heads to the specified grave site posing as his fellow traveler. There, a man whom he suspects to be an Islamic State facilitator gives him money, a burner phone, and assurances regarding an unspecified future event. August knows he should contact his old colleagues in British intelligence, but instead opts to let things develop until he has actionable information to report. The situation devolves from there. Wolff—a “British government” employee writing under a pseudonym—imbues every page of this expertly crafted espionage thriller with authority and verisimilitude. The tale luxuriates in the plot’s margins for the first 200 pages or so, lulling readers into a false sense of security, before plunging headlong into the stuff of nightmares. Flashbacks to August’s marriage and work as an agent pepper the narrative, informing motivation while adding context and depth. John le Carré aficionados, this one’s for you. MysteryScene Magazine


“August Drummond has been sacked from his position in the British intelligence service. We meet him first in reports from a fellow officer and then, drunk and distressed, on a flight to Istanbul to take up a new job. On the plane he sees a young Englishman behaving oddly a few rows ahead of him and makes surreptitious contact, which leads him into a violent, sometimes farcical and sometimes horrifying plot. August’s body comes in for as much punishment as his mind, and it soon becomes clear not only that he is cleverer than all the people trying to get him but also that his activities cannot end happily. This is a well-informed novel that reveals quite how unglamorous the world of international espionage really is. The compromises and the cruelties necessary in dealing with unsavoury regimes mean that few people can keep their hands clean. While the mixture of dishonesty and incompetence on show gives little comfort, James Wolff weaves into his ingenious plot one strand that offers enough warmth and redemption to stave off terminal depression.” Literary Review


“At the start of How to Betray Your Country by James Wolff, August Drummond has been sacked by MI5 and his wife has died in an accident. If he’s to survive his grief, he needs a distraction and, on his way to take up a dull civilian job in Istanbul, he thinks he’s found just the thing — a fellow passenger on the flight whose behaviour triggers August’s mental alarms. This diversion leads him into a deadly and unpredictable conspiracy and this time he’s not only on his own — he may well be on the opposite side to all his old colleagues. It’s a marvellously funny book, sad in a way that mysteriously lifts rather than depresses and with a wild but always convincing plot, along with characters hard to forget. We are living in something of a golden age for sophisticated British spy fiction and Wolff is providing more than his share of the glister.”  Morning Star



How to Betray Your Country is the second book in a planned themed trilogy exploring the ways an individual spy might turn traitorous. It follows on from Beside the Syrian Sea, in which an English spy attempts to trade national secrets in order to free his father, held captive by ISIS. The author uses the pseudonym James Wolff and has been ’employed by the UK Government for 10 years’, which we’ll take as meaning that he or she knows more than a little about the state security and intelligence businesses. 

Things get underway with August Drummond on a flight to Istanbul. He’s been drummed out of the UK’s security services after he attacked a colleague during a disciplinary hearing. Drummond had been accused of being behind a number of relatively low level security breaches and behaving as a kind of Robin Hood figure to gain justice for various individuals who, for strategic purposes, were ignored by the security agencies. Drummond was guilty of all this, and more besides, but it was an offhand remark about his wife’s death by his colleague Lawrence that made him lose his temper. Martha died suddenly just a few weeks prior when she was knocked off her bike by a truck on the streets of London. Since then Drummond has been falling apart. 

A fellow passenger on the plane has caught Drummond’s attention. The young man looks anxious and furtive, and Drummond, drunk and bored, decides to follow him when they disembark. Police are waiting for the man at the airport, but before he is arrested he hides a secret message. Drummond recovers it, establishes it as the time and place for a meeting that evening in a local cemetery, and decides to take the man’s place, heedless of the risks involved. He meets an Iraqi man whose identity is hidden and learns that his role is to pass illegally into Syria where he will join up with other Daesh recruits. Drummond is struck by the man’s competence, and reckons him to be a high-level recruiter. Faced with the awful prospect of life without Martha, and possessed with a determined fatalism, Drummond decides to let events play out without informing Turkish security organisations about what he is doing. 

The following day, Drummond turns up for work at his new office. He has been employed by a private communications team tasked with presenting the UK in a positive light in the Middle East. To his surprise and amusement the service liaison between his old and new employers is Lawrence. His first task is to assess the suitability of a Syrian refugee, Youssef, who has come looking for work. Youssef is desperate for money so that he can travel to Europe to search for his family, who fled the Syrian regime. Drummond knows he can’t use Youssef but is sympathetic to his predicament and befriends him. 

I found it impossible to read How to Betray Your Country without thinking of the Slough House novels by Mick Herron, which have dominated contemporary British espionage fiction in recent years. Wolff shares Herron’s ability to quickly and convincingly draw characters, and especially to capture their sympathetic qualities. There is humour and sadness in their situations and, like Herron, Wolff makes this more important than the plot. With Drummond setting out to confound the meddling Lawrence, help Youssef and extricate himself from Daesh, I found myself more concerned with how he would manage to stay true to his wife’s memory.

When your country and your loved one are at odds, what is most important? This is what Wolff is asking. How to Betray Your Country answers it in the most eloquent fashion.” CrimeFictionLover






  • Author avatar
    Francois Von Hurter
  • How to Betray your CountryJames Wolff