Waiting for Sunrise By William Boyd Harper. 368 pp. $26.99

Reviewed by Rhonda Dickey

Good writers keep returning to the spy novel. It entertains, it has a plot, and, at its best, it's a great way to explore human frailty. No matter how many times you read a story like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the betrayals break your heart.

William Boyd makes the most of those spy-novel opportunities in Waiting for Sunrise, which is set just before and in the early years of World War I. His is a thoughtfully plotted story, whose twists and turns reveal the price its characters pay in trust. More than that, it's a parallel unfolding off the battlefield of the war's destruction of all that kept civilization together.

Lysander Rief, the young British actor at the center of the story, gets pulled into espionage work for the British through a complex series of events that starts in Vienna in 1913. Lysander is seeking help for his sexual problem from the psychoanalyst Dr. Bensimon. In the waiting room during his first visit, Lysander meets Hettie Bull, the artist who will become his lover (Dr. Bensimon's treatment is successful), and Capt. Alwyn Munro, the military attaché at the British Embassy. All three of the new acquaintances will have a hand in leading Lysander into the spy world. Were all three setting up the plot right then and there?

Lysander is a recognizable William Boyd "hero" -- something of a social klutz, no stranger to the fullness of life's disappointments. (It doesn't help Lysander, though it does wonders for the plot, that Lysander practically throws himself under the spell of women.)

Time and place exert a powerful force in the story. The characters don't know what will happen in Europe in the summer of 1914, but the reader does, with dread. After Lysander is spirited out of Vienna following Hettie's unjust accusation of rape, his escape aided by Munro, he returns to England. Taking a break one day from a country walk, "he suddenly felt a stillness creep up on him as if he were suffering from a form of mental palsy -- as if time had stopped and the world's turning, also. It was a strange sensation -- that he would be for ever stuck in this late June day in 1914 …"

But no such luck. A colleague of Munro's in the scheme to free Lysander from Austrian justice presents the British government's bill for the rescue the next month (a daunting 860 pounds), war is declared, and Munro reappears. He tasks Lysander, now an enlisted man, with identifying a traitor in the British high command. Lysander travels to Geneva, in disguise --an actor's strong suit -- and completes his mission, but with sobering results.

He is left to contemplate how much any of this wartime journey had been left to chance. Lysander is a perfect target for spy work: an actor, used to taking on other identities. He was wandering around a fading Austro-Hungarian capital in the months before the war broke out. His mother is from Austria. He had gone to Vienna to be treated for a sexual matter, a malady ripe for exploitation.

Late in the story, Lysander observes: "Not for the first time in this whole affair I felt myself wantonly adrift -- seeing a few details but making no connection -- and also consumed with the feeling that invisible strings were being pulled by a person or persons unknown and that I was attached to their ends."

And just as World War I destroyed the old order and launched the world violently into the modern age, Lysander sees in his own story that the old certainties are blasted into oblivion, along with trust, and anything resembling empathy.

William Boyd, a screenwriter as well as a novelist, recently accepted the Ian Fleming estate's invitation to write the next James Bond novel. The franchise should offer a fitting canvas for a writer as nimble and entertaining as Boyd is. But in Lysander Rief, Boyd creates a distinctly un-Bondlike figure, a canvas for the cruelty that wartime expedience can inflict. Unlike Bond, Lysander Rief is really just a normal, imperfect person, and in no way in control of his own circumstances.

"Maybe this is what life is like," Lysander concludes, "we try to see clearly but what we see is never clear and is never going to be. The more we strive the murkier it becomes. All we are left with are approximations, nuances, multitudes of plausible explanations. Take your pick."

It's a very 20th-century point of view, but one that emerges from no end of grief.

Rhonda Dickey is a former Inquirer editor.