The Foot Soldiers is the 38th Gerald Seymour novel and is the first to feature a returning lead character, Jonas Merrick of MI5, previously seen in The Crocodile Hunter (published in 2021).
(Although other characters have reappeared as guest stars, such as Cathy Parker from The Journeyman Tailor reappearing in The Fighting Man and Henry Carter from The Contract who appeared in Home Run and in the framing story of The Heart of Danger.)
In Denmark a Russian GRU agent Igor approaches an MI6 officer stationed in the country and says he wants to defect. This is a headache for MI6 as they are not benefiting from any intelligence he would have gathered for them as a double agent. Instead there is suspicion as to if he is a genuine defector or not.
Elsewhere another GRU employee is a genuine agent for the British. Alexei is based in Kirov and every two weeks makes the 12 hour journey by train to Moscow, ostensibly to visit his mother. In fact he is passing valuable data to MI6 via Maggie, a soldier based at the British embassy in Moscow and borrowed by MI6 for the contacts with Alexei. He is starting to believe his treachery has been discovered and his arrest may be imminent.
The GRU meanwhile have decided to make an example of Igor and arrange his assassination. The first attack in Germany is foiled and Sashcord (as he is codenamed) and his MI6 handlers have a lucky escape. But it raises the question on how the GRU uncovered the closely guarded secret of his whereabouts.
Jonas Merrick is given the task to find out who is leaking information to the Russians and is sent across the River Thames to MI6 headquarters (disparagingly referred to as Ceausescu Towers). There he is to individually interview the team of “sixers” who knew of Sashcord’s whereabouts. His only assistance is from Frank, a young woman who is the dogsbody on the resettlement team who handles defectors.
If he finds out who the mole is, perhaps Igor can be used as a tethered goat to lure the Russian assassins to make another attempt at a time and place of his choosing in Denmark.
The novel intercuts between the three main stories, Igor and his handlers in Denmark, Alexei and his handler in Russia and Merrick’s hunt for the mole in London
I thoroughly enjoyed The Foot Soldiers. It’s probably my favourite since A Deniable Death. It is especially good on the rivalry between MI5 and MI6 employees.
As a final note there was one passage that stood out when I read the book. A senior GRU officer muses that if the regime were to end badly, as he assumed it would, then he and his family would try to escape to Finland. The idea of the “regime ending badly” stuck with me. And now in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that passage has taken on even more significance for me.
Thanks to Hodder books for the review copy.
The Foot Soldiers is published on 31 March 2022 in the UK.