The British have a way with espionage. Think John Le CarrŽ, Eric Ambler, or, master of them all, Graham Greene. For that matter, think of the real thing: Burgess, Philby and MacLean. The moral ambiguity inherent in cloak-and-dagger scenarios seems tailor-made for the small, once-powerful island nation stubbornly perched on the edge of a larger, menacing Europe.

The accomplished English (though African-born) writer William Boyd throws his trilby into the spy ring with his absorbing new novel, Restless. Set alternately in 1976 and during the Second World War, Restless tells the stories of Eva Delectorskaya, a young woman recruited to work for an ultra-secret sector of the British Secret Service, and her daughter, Ruth Gilmartin, an Oxford graduate student who has no idea about her mother's past. That ignorance ends when Eva, now a 60-something woman called Sally Gilmartin, gives Ruth a written account of her former life. After all these years, Sally has an uneasy feeling that she is being watched, perhaps with malicious intent, by someone from her past. She wants the truth told and, we shall learn, justice done.

Eva's story begins in Paris in 1939 when she is contacted by spymaster Lucas Romer, who informs her that her brother, Kolia, was killed while working as an agent for the British. Romer wants the intelligent, multilingual Eva to take over Kolia's work, and she is sent to a training facility in Scotland where she excels at the exigencies of espionage. Romer, dazzled by her abilities, takes a special interest in Eva now called Eve Dalton and they become lovers. His most important words of advice to her: Don't trust anyone.

Eva is sent to Belgium, where she joins Romer's team in running a trumped-up wire service that feeds disinformation to the European press. She accompanies Romer into Holland on a mission near the German border, and when things go terribly wrong, proves her worth by extricating herself from the botched rendezvous. After Belgium falls to the Germans, Romer's Transoceanic Press service relocates to New York, and Eva becomes part of the little known but historically real efforts by the British Secret Service to draw isolationist America into the war by planting false news stories about Germany's intentions. Romer once more puts Eva's considerable talents as a spy to the test, sending her to New Mexico as a courier. Something doesn't quite seem right to Eva, though, and when she alters the proscribed plans, she finds herself in a life-or-death situation. The consummate spy, Eva knows that she has been betrayed, and masterminds her own disappearance with extraordinary finesse.

More than 30 years later, Eva asks Ruth to get in touch with Romer, now an English Lord. Ruth undertakes this task reluctantly she is still not sure that her mother is not delusional and doesn't fully understand that her mother has a final plan skillfully worked out that she needs her daughter to bring off. Ruth, meanwhile, has her own complications to deal with. A single mother with unwelcome ties to some German student radicals (this is the era of the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang), she is making a living teaching English to foreign students while nimbly avoiding work on her graduate thesis. An Iranian student has professed his love for her, but Ruth, with a dogged independence inherited from her mother, is not ready to give herself over to another man.

Restless is elegantly constructed, with each of its atmospheric narratives compelling in its own right. The fact that Ruth's story is ultimately less satisfying than Eva's can be chalked up to the simple truth that it's hard to top the appeal of a well-told spy tale. The versatile Boyd, who has written eight other novels (each somewhat different from the rest) and has a quiver-full of literary awards, knows how to keep the narrative action flowing. His subtle delineation of character masterfully conveys the ways that duplicity and suspicion can infiltrate any life. And the historical truths behind this haunting story are no less intriguing: that the British employed subterfuge and manipulated facts to win an American alliance has clear resonance in our own time of war. Robert Weibezahl is author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead.

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