The world that JB Priestley grew up in and loved was smashed to bits by the Great War (in which he fought but like so many of his generation chose not to go on about) and he viewed most of what came after with disdain and disgust. His heyday as a best selling author and playwright and everybody's favourite grumpy uncle came to an end circa 1945- and his post-war work never received the attention it deserved- which is unfair- because there was no slackening in his powers of invention and observation. The Shapes of Sleep is a Cold War novel. It was published in the same year as the Ipcress File and the year before The Spy Who came in From the Cold- and is every bit as beady and clearsighted as those fashionable, famous novels by very much younger men. For Priestley the spy game is a squalid folie a deux and his sympathies are with the double agent who plays both sides off against the other because Communism and Capitalism are equally foolish and amoral- and much the same in their desire to turn human beings into ants. It's an entertaining book- with generic twists and turns and revelations- and a reproach and a rebuff to all those in the present generation who think it would be a jolly good idea to split the world once more into two armed camps. What gruff, contemptuous fun Priestley would have had with the Salisbury novichok affair.
Priestley's reputation was in the doldrums until- earlier this century- Stephen Daldry gave An Inspector Calls a classy West End revival- and it's now generally acknowledged that he was a pretty good playwright after all. I think he was an even better novelist- because fiction gave him more scope to chunner and snipe and be wise in his own voice- and it's time this was acknowledged too.