The collapse of the Soviet bloc, it was predicted, would herald the demise of the spy novel. Writers would no longer have the cold war from which to cull their material. A decade after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Alan Judd circumvents the problem by setting his latest book in the 1970s - repositioning his tale of Anglo-Russian espionage in the category of historical thriller. In dredging the political past, Judd also exhumes one of his own characters - Charles Thoroughgood, a soldier serving in Northern Ireland and the protagonist of A Breed of Heroes. In Legacy, Charles has left the army to join MI6 as a trainee intelligence officer. Barely has his induction course begun, however, when he is pulled from the shambolic spying exercises and plunged into a very real case with, naturally, implications for national security. And he has personal as well as professional dilemmas to resolve along the way.
There are formulae to be observed in this type of book, and Judd observes them scrupulously. What he replicates less well is the air of suspense that is a prerequisite of any thriller. In part, this is due to the weight of authenticating detail. As a former civil servant at the Foreign Office and biographer of Mansfield Cumming, the founder of the modern Secret Service, Judd infuses his writing with insider knowledge. The technicalities and jargon of espionage may be fascinating but, in what is, after all, a work of fiction, they need to be more deftly embedded in the telling of the tale. But the problem goes deeper. The plotting is mechanical, betraying signs of a novel too carefully planned for its own good; the characters, in consequence, seem less "real" for having to act out the authorial game plan. And, more crucially, the hero - a pipe-smoking 30-year-old who is more Adam Dalgliesh than James Bond - cuts a far from seismic figure at the epicentre of this particular dramatic tremor.
Charles, as it happens, was at Oxford with Viktor Koslov, who - about ten years later - is now a Soviet diplomat in London, suspected of being a KGB plant. Luckily, his relations with a high-class prostitute make him vulnerable to being "tapped up" to work as a double agent for the British. As a former acquaintance of Koslov (codename Lover Boy), Charles is just the man to do the tapping up. However, he is compromised by a revelation from his own past - his late father, it seems, was a philandering traitor in the pay of Moscow. The obligatory love interest comes in the form of Anna, the wife of a senior colleague, though Charles is more easily aroused by the glimpse of an S-class Merc or a Bristol 405 (among other things, Judd is a motoring correspondent). Late in the novel, Charles discovers that Anna drives an Austin Maxi - and he still fancies her.
Judd is a decent writer; his previous novel, The Devil's own Work, won the Guardian fiction prize. Despite its flaws, Legacy is a competent literary thriller. There are genuine moments of tension, especially when we leave the internal machinations of MI6 to follow the cat-and-mouse intrigues of Charles and Koslov. And the recreation of the atmosphere of the period is evocative - though, at times, it seems more Fifties than Seventies, even allowing for the dated, cloistered world of the intelligence services. However, to revisit fictional territory that has long been laid fallow by political events, and then to write a straight (albeit historical) spy novel, seems to be both a sterile exercise and a missed opportunity. Surely there was scope for, if not ironic pastiche or reinvention of the form, at least a modern interpretation of the genre? This novel could have been written 30 years ago. Indeed, this kind of novel was being written 30 years ago, and better, by Len Deighton and John le Carre.
Martyn Bedford is a novelist, critic, and newly appointed lecturer in creative writing at the University of Manchester