The third of the acclaimed Comptrollerate-General novels is out this year: Spider of Sarajevo explores what went on in the shadows in the weeks before the First World War, and will be published on the centenary of the events it describes.

“a tour de force of delicate, intricate, glorious spy craft, peopled by a cast of characters of such colour and life that you will turn corners, expecting still to meet them.  His language is lyrical, spare and beautiful and the depth of passion and intellect shines from the page.  This is magnificent.  

If you only read one novel about the Great War this year, make it this one.”


Is this what death is?

The end of the world: a little unseen barbarity somewhere in the Balkans. The great hole of a pistol muzzle.

A word, and the cloth was ripped out of his mouth and the muzzle and the pistol and the man holding it pulled away. Another man stepped forward, two other men nearby.

The path had widened into a kind of clearing against the cliff face, stony and patched with grass.

Kelmendi, Adem had said. Kelmendi, the men of a village a few miles away, described with hatred or humour according to circumstance. The man with the pistol, and the two men now standing back – a glance showed that all three looked Albanian in face and dress. The few words had been spoken in Albanian.

But the man walking forwards did not look or dress like an Albanian. Ballentyne took him in, from the dust upwards: boots, puttees, trousers, jacket; good outdoor clothes that could have come from any European capital. A European face flushed by recent exercise; brown hair. His own age.

‘Good evening.’ He didn’t sound like an Albanian either. ‘Mr... Bahl- en-tein.’ The ugly vowels of English cleaned, the syllables delivered evenly.

He looked and sounded German.

‘Who the hell are you?’

A moment’s consideration, and then a little smile. ‘My name is Hildebrandt.’ The head came forwards slightly. ‘I am the man who shortly will kill you.’

‘The crisis that no one of the European powers could create has been created by a handful of peasants. They have brought the world to the precipice.’

The future of British intelligence - of the British Empire - is in their hands. Not all of them will return. Unique and resourceful, hunted and deceived, they have embarked on a journey that will climax in the town of Sarajevo on the 28th of June 1914.

Summer 1914: Europe is on the brink. As Britain’s enemies grown stronger, the Comptroller-General sees the hand of the man with whom he has struggled for a generation - a man he knows only as the Spider. In a desperate gamble, he sends four agents out across the continent, on a mission they do not understand...

‘a learned, beautifully written, elegant spy thriller’ (The Times)

‘one of the smartest novelists we have. A touch of Conrad, more than a dash of Buchan ... Simply brilliant.’(John Lawton)


Live Twitter feed of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s visit to Sarajevo