The Ends of the Earth by Robert Goddard (Historical Espionage Novel, 2015/2017).
Not to be confused with nautical historical adventure series by William Golding, this is the concluding volume of a spy/revenge/mystery trilogy set in the confused aftermath of World War I. James Maxted (Max to his friends) was an ace fighter pilot during the Great War. He was then recruited by the head of Great Britain’s Intelligence Service and is now a secret agent.
It’s 1919, Germany has been defeated and a peace treaty just signed. But for Max, his superiors and friends, the covert international war against renegade German spy master Fritz Lemmer is going stronger than ever. His many agents are still out there and largely unidentified, having infiltrated governments of all the Allied powers. And the struggle to eliminate the threat that he and those he controls is doubly personal for Max.
Lemmer had Max’s diplomat father murdered during the marathon peace talks in Paris. And while Japan was one of the Allies in the war, Count Tomura (a shadowy, menacing and powerful Japanese official) is also involved somehow. There is a tangled web of secrets (dangerous, potentially disastrous secrets) connecting Max’s father to these two men, and dating from his early career assignment in Japan in the last years of the 19th century.
Multiple deadly adventures filled the first two books in the series, though having read them isn’t strictly needed to follow and enjoy this one.
Now, to bring down Lemmer’s spy network and avenge his father’s death (and learn what caused it), Max and those helping him have to follow their enemies back to Japan. Shifting loyalties, uncertainties and the double- and triple-crosses that veteran thriller writer Robert Goddard is known for abound here. Until late in the book, even Max isn’t quite sure what he’s facing or how he will set things right (or even if that’s possible).
But he’s got that British stiff-upper-lip determination thing going for him. And in the course of things he’s acquired a team of backers. Oddly, Max is off-stage for the first 60 pages of this book. He’s sent his squad of supporters to Japan ahead of them, while he mops up certain loose ends back in Europe. Then this crew of mostly amateur spies (his ultra-loyal wartime flight engineer Sam, American tough-guy Schools Morahan, the resourceful and lovely Malory Hollander, and several new guys Schools hired as extra muscle) are told that Max is dead.
Now, considering this is a trilogy and this book in particular comes billed as “a James Maxted Thriller” this is one red herring the reader instantly knows to discount. It does allow Max’s three principle friends an excuse to mope around a while before deciding to carry on in his name. Of course they soon find themselves betrayed and on the run, framed for murdering a contact. Schools and some others are soon in custody and being tortured by the Secret Police. Sam and Malory are about to reluctantly board an escape ship–when the very alive Max pops up to stop them.
Surprise! Well, not really.
We then get another 60 or so pages of flashback, focusing on Max’s in-the-meantime European adventures. These fill in a good number of blanks for readers who haven’t read the previous two volumes. Things do get more and more complicated, although Goddard keeps it all together decently enough in plot terms. Ever more forces come into play, most aiding the cause: That includes Max’s spy service mentor along with an obnoxious Brit diplomat who imagines he’s Max’s ‘real’ father busy with a related side plot in Switzerland; a couple prominent Japanese officials helping because they’re anxious to discredit the war-mongering Tomura (and his villainous buddy Lemmer); a taciturn but brilliant Arab cat burglar and the shady “import/export businessman” who employs said burglar.
I’m not going to detail what is finally learned, but suffice to say that in terms of plot the book has all the violent derring-do you could ask for. Death, destruction, close escapes and painful losses. Of course the bad guys are defeated (though one vengeful nasty escapes, leaving open possibilities, should Goddard decide to revive Max and company in the future). It’s a good, serviceable (if slightly oddly structured) espionage thriller and the period details feel both real and colorful.
But….somehow none of the characters quite come completely alive for me. The secrets that eventually are pieced together SHOULD provide more of an emotional wallop for the reader than they do. I wouldn’t describe them as cardboard (Goddard is a better writer than that), but they did have a bit of that walking-clichés-out-of-Central-Casting feel to them. Lemmer and Tomura are both soooooo vile and ruthless, most of their underlings utterly craven bastards—and Max and his buddies? Obsessively dedicated and ever-brave, sooooo unquestioningly loyal and stalwart.
So what you have here is (in my view) a very decent adventure–but by no means a great one.