Picks and Pans Review: Spycatcher

updated 09/07/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/07/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Peter Wright

You have to remind yourself as you read this book—just as you did when you listened to Oliver North—that this is not fiction. This is not some cheap thriller. This is real. In Spycatcher, Peter Wright tells true spy stories from his 20 years inside MI5, Britain's domestic CIA. What he reveals is so hot and humiliating that his book, a best-seller here, has been banned in Britain, and newspapers are forbidden to print excerpts. Wright tells of British and American attempts in 1974 to discredit then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson as a Communist. He writes about British bugging of Soviet (and even friendly French) embassies. He recounts his own obsessive hunt for the "Fifth Man" in the notorious Guy Burgess/Donald Maclean/Kim Philby/Anthony Blunt spy ring inside the British government; Wright argues passionately that the top mole was his own boss at MI5, Roger Hollis. We've already witnessed the high human drama in true tales of Soviet-British-American espionage with at least five great TV shows: Pack of Lies; Blunt; Yuri Nosenko, KGB; Man From Moscow; An Englishman Abroad. So what makes Wright's book amazing is not what he uncovered but how he and his fellow spooks uncovered it—with methods more outrageous than the inventions of Le Carré or Ludlum. In the first half of his book, Wright the scientist tells of spy tech gadgets used to eavesdrop on radio signals or to crack codes and safes. In the second half, Wright becomes a counterintelligence officer, tracking traitors in what a CIA man called a wilderness of mirrors "where defectors are false, lies are truth, truth lies, and the reflections leave you dazzled and confused." At times Wright confuses you with code words that aren't in his glossary. But his story, like North's, is a cautionary tale about the unlimited license secrecy allows. It is as fascinating as it is frightening. (Viking, $19.95)

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