Talking to Strange Men

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Mungo Cameron is obsessed with his schoolboy spy network, in which youths from several boarding schools have taken on the espionage roles reserved for adults in the East-West struggle for power. Through an elaborate series of codes, Mungo transmits messages among his various agents as they perform minor feats of “spying.” Initially, these acts of subterfuge are only perpetrated against a rival group of young spies, but gradually Mungo sees the opportunity to expand his operations into the world at large by intervening in his father’s application to the local city council for a permit to expand his medical offices.

The spies find themselves unwittingly involved in more serious affairs, however, as their messages are intercepted by the reclusive John Creevey, who has recently been separated from his wife, Jennifer, and is desperately trying to win her back from Peter Moran, a layabout who was once her finance. John hopes that the information he has uncovered about her boyfriend’s arrest and conviction on a sex charge involving a small boy will provide the impetus for her return. He involves the spy network in his plans and thereby endangers lives, although only one of the team, Charles Marbledene, becomes directly involved with the sex offender.

A series of sex murders are shown to be linked to the brutal murder of John’s sister, a case that has remained unsolved for the past seventeen years. The increasingly alarming events come to a head when Peter invites Charles to a film and dinner and Charles inadvertently kills Peter in an abandoned building used as a safe house by the boy spies. Charles is not found out, and Mungo retires as head of the network when he is graduated into the next form, leaving the espionage game to the younger boy, who in the last pages of the novel reveals his malign intentions for the teams of schoolboy spies.

This novel is remarkable for its deft plotting. Rendell weaves an imaginative series of events into a story of loneliness, betrayal, and death. The difference in moral attitudes between Mungo Cameron and Charles Marbledene mirrors the darkening tone of contemporary spy thrillers, as the distinctions between good and evil become increasingly murky in modern genre fiction.