Trevor Barnes, Dead Doubles (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020)
Recent books on the major spy cases of the post-war era have mainly focused on notorious individuals – Philby, Burgess, MacLean, Fuchs, and Blake – with the multiple participant Portland Spy Ring becoming a bit lost in the shuffle. Until now. Trevor Barnes, in his brilliant exposition Dead Doubles, narrates and analyses a spy case that was every bit as potentially damaging to British national security as anything those traitors achieved and puts the Portland Spy Ring into the top echelon of British espionage disasters.
After a series of notes identifying the players in this drama, and a teasing preface, Barnes methodically unpacks the case. He begins with the investigation, from the initial police report in 1955, which was all but discarded, through the painstaking process of uncovering two couples of ‘illegals’ – deep undercover spies, living publicly normal lives in England – that were connected by their Soviet handler, Konon Molody. One couple, the Cohens/Krogers, you might describe as ‘proper’ spies that the FBI had been hunting for years, while the other couple were a greedy opportunist and his deluded mistress. Between them, they stole secrets relating to the Royal Navy’s submarine development programme. Their trial proved problematic because MI5 could not reveal much of the top-secret evidence that played a pivotal role in the investigation, but a hanging judge and seemingly compliant defence ensured conviction and prison sentences for all concerned. The Cohens and Molody were exchanged for British spies, receiving a hero’s welcome in the Soviet Union, while Houghton and Gee served their time, married, then faded into obscurity. Barnes leaves us with the uncomfortable suggestion that the spy ring was much wider, and perhaps deeper, than this group.
   Dead Doubles is a gripping story merged with scholarly analysis. Barnes has a novelist’s touch, though more LeCarre than Fleming, with an eye for the telling detail as he folds his characters into the narrative. He also exposes the messiness of the espionage game where small mistakes can have huge consequences, professionalism and rank amateurism clash, and people on all sides are rarely who they appear to be for good and bad. Dead Doubles, therefore, ranks as one of the best of the recent crop of books on Cold War espionage and is surely the definitive account of the Portland Spy Ring.