Magazine article The Spectator

The Frogman Who Failed

Magazine article The Spectator

The Frogman Who Failed

Article excerpt

The frogman who failed MAN OVERBOARD by Tim Binding Picador, £12.99, pp. 244, ISBN 0330487477 £11.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

Ian Fleming pretended they were glamorous, John le Carré claimed they were brainy and unscrupulous. Commander Crabb, in real-life 1956, made Britain's spies into the figures of fun they went on being until the Iraq fiasco showed they could be dangerous, too. He was the middle-aged chap, tripping over his flippers in a baggy wet-suit, who vanished into Portsmouth harbour near a Soviet warship, just when Anthony Eden's government was vainly hoping to do some deal with the Bulganin-Khrushchev double act. If anybody knows what really happened, they have not yet told the rest of us. Tim Binding has embroidered a tale on to the bones of Crabb's bizarre escapade.

His novel sets out to do two things. It is an adventure story, but far too implausible to work as such. Much more successfully, it is an exploration of the times and minds of the postwar adventurers who drifted, often for lack of talent for much else, into the Cold War spying trade. Binding resists the temptations either to make fun of Crabb or to make excuses for him. His hero has been a real hero, rewarded with a grand medal and mean pay for being as brave as only the seriously unimaginative can be, in the same way again and again.

Drink helped, in the pubs and seedy clubs where such people got together, studiously avoiding talk about the secret work that was the only interesting thing they knew much about. The more intricate their exploits, the duller their conversation. …

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