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'Waiting for Sunrise' by William Boyd

William Boyd, author of

William Boyd, author of "Waiting for Sunrise" (Harper, April 2012). Credit: Marzena Pogorzaly/

WAITING FOR SUNRISE, by William Boyd. Harper, 353 pp., $25.99.

When we learned earlier this month that author William Boyd had been selected to write the next James Bond novel, I thought: Of course. I was in the middle of Boyd's latest, "Waiting for Sunrise," a World War I-era espionage tale, and I'd just read an interrogation scene so offhandedly sadistic that it might have been lifted from the pages of Ian Fleming.

Not that "Waiting for Sunrise," the 18th book from the author of "A Good Man in Africa" and "Any Human Heart," is a straightforward spy thriller. Boyd has created an odder and in some ways less satisfying read, though it's delivered with the polished prose you'd expect from a Whitbread Award-winning, Booker-shortlisted writer.

The novel opens in Vienna in 1913, where English actor Lysander Rief has come seeking psychiatric treatment from an acolyte of Sigmund Freud. (The good doctor himself, smoking a cigar, makes a winking cameo.) Rief has left behind a successful stage career and a beautiful actress fiancee because, well, he can't consummate the sex act.

In the offices of his psychiatrist, Rief encounters two characters who influence his destiny: a neurotic young Englishwoman named Hettie Bull, with whom Rief will have an affair, and Alwyn Munro, a button-down English military attache. Rief's performance issues are cured after just 73 pages (with an assist from Hettie) and it becomes clear that this extended Viennese episode is really designed to put Rief in debt to Munro, who helps his countryman escape Austria after Hettie files a false rape charge against him.

Back in England, after World War I has broken out, Munro will collect on his IOU. Rief, with his acting skills and his fluency in German, is dispatched to Switzerland to determine who is passing vital troop and supply information to an official at the German consulate. Thus our amateur spy finds that on a "Sunday morning in Geneva, he had tortured a man and extracted information from him. What was happening to him? What kind of a fiend was he becoming?"

But Lysander Rief, despite his conscience and his psychoanalysis, isn't an existentialist antihero out of a le Carré novel. Though Boyd intersperses passages from Rief's journals throughout the narrative, he remains a somewhat opaque protagonist who excites no great passion or sympathy in the reader. And "Waiting for Sunrise" brims with many characters and subplots -- Rief's psychiatrist, whose unorthodox psychoanalytic theories may or may not be spurious; Rief's mother, who may or may not be implicated in the treason case; Rief's homosexual uncle, who lives with a young African protege -- that don't always lead anywhere satisfying.

Yet Boyd is capable of some terrific scenes: the aforementioned torture session, a sequence where Rief leaves the English trenches and crosses through no man's land into French-controlled territory, a nighttime Zeppelin attack on London. Give Boyd an iconic character such as James Bond, and there's no telling what he might come up with. But one thing you can be sure of: 007 will have no problems in the lovemaking department.

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