W&N acquires Portland Spy Ring detective story

W&N acquires Portland Spy Ring detective story

Weidenfeld & Nicolson has bought a "major" new non-fiction title, Dead Doubles by writer and journalist Trevor Barnes, about the discovery, pursuit and capture of the Portland Spy Ring.

Alan Samson, publisher at Weidenfeld & Nicolson Non-Fiction, bought UK and Commonwealth rights from Bill Hamilton of A M Heath to Dead Doubles: the Portland Spy Ring and the Hunt for the KGB's Greatest Illegals, to publish as a £20 hardback in May 2020. US rights have been pre-empted by Jennifer Barth of HarperCollins US.

The Portland Spy Ring were a group of five KGB spies (two British, two American, and one Russian) who stole top secret information for many years, including details of Britain's first nuclear submarine. The book will tell their story and that of the ring's trial in 1961, a key espionage case from the early Cold War that seized national and international attention. The detective story - a counterintelligence investigation - will be structured around Charles Elwell, a largely unknown MI5 officer who was put in charge of the spy hunt.

According to W&N, the book reads "like something straight out of le Carré" in a narrative that criss-crosses the world between the USSR, US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the UK, with layers of false identities constructed from dead people (the "Dead Doubles" of the title). The "serious but entertaining history" marks the first time anyone has pulled together the worldwide story around the key investigators, W&N publishers emphasised, using information from newly declassified MI5 files.

Hamilton said: “Trevor is bringing to life one of the most extraordinary spy stories of the Cold War, extending right around the world and to the centre of the nuclear arms race. It’s a fabulous period piece with an undertow of farce and deep resonance for today. I’m delighted to bring an author of such talent to an editor with Alan’s unparalleled depth of knowledge.”

Samson added: “I have long been fascinated by the activities of the Portland Spy Ring and the multiple identities of its main protagonists. Trevor Barnes also has many identities – as a broadcaster, lawyer, novelist and brilliant researcher -  and this is the book he was surely destined to write.  It is a grippingly dramatic subject that deserves an outstanding book, and all of us at Weidenfeld & Nicolson are thrilled to welcome Trevor to the list.”

Barnes, the book's author, studied espionage and the early history of the CIA as a student at the University of Cambridge and a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard, and has worked as a radio and TV journalist on programmes for the BBC and as a legal consultant. He is the author of three crime novels and also researched and wrote Trial at Torun, a radio play about the trial in Poland of a secret service murder case.