Study Guide

The Secret Families

by John Gardner

The Secret Families Analysis

The Secret Families (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE SECRET FAMILIES is the third volume of a trilogy. Like its predecessors, THE SECRET GENERATIONS and THE SECRET HOUSES, it portrays two families interlocked by marriage--the British Railtons and the American Farthings. The family trade for both of these is espionage. Members of each family have for several generations served in either the British Secret Service or the American CIA.

Sir Caspar Railton, although severely wounded during World War I, worked for forty years in MI6. After his death, information comes to light that he had been a Soviet agent since the 1930’s. The news angers his nephew Donald Railton (Naldo), who looked on Sir Caspar as a second father. With the help of his American cousin Andrew Farthing, Naldo decides to investigate for himself.

Naldo’s persistence pays off. He discovers evidence that Sir Caspar has deliberately faked a diary in which he confesses to joining the NKVD. A second diary reveals the truth. Sir Caspar did enlist in Soviet intelligence, but only to gain information for the British. He claims in the true diary that he has uncovered a key Soviet mole.

Gardner’s trilogy emphasizes the difficulty in finding out the truth in matters of espionage. Is Naldo’s discovery in fact correct? He stakes his life on it. He undertakes a trip to Russia to confront the Soviet general who holds a vital piece of the puzzle. Just as matters seem to be winding up to a happy conclusion, Gardner introduces a new twist. The entire basis of Naldo’s case collapses. He refuses to give up, however, and at last the truth comes to light. It is safe to say that not many will guess the solution; but by a clue placed in the first few pages, Gardner has given his readers a fair shot at the answer.

Gardner’s novel often refers to actual events, and part of its interest lies in examining the author’s interpretations. He takes with utmost seriousness the theory that the Soviets have extensively penetrated the intelligence services of Great Britain and the United States. Gardner is a versatile writer, and his books range from classic British mysteries to James Bond adventure novels. In this trilogy, realism is the name of the game. Readers who like complicated espionage plots in this style of John le Carre will enjoy this book.