Let's begin Spy Fiction Fortnight with a review of a novel set largely in the late-1960s – which, considering a fair percentage of the books I blog about hail from that same period (or thereabouts), probably won't come as too much of a surprise. Except, in this instance, the book in question was only written a few years ago...
vintage Soviet posters there) dustjacket illustration by Tavis Coburn. It's the first person account of Paul Dark, a British secret agent who, one Sunday evening in March 1969, is summoned by the Chief of the security service to his country house to discuss some disturbing news. A cultural attache at the Soviet Embassy in Lagos, Nigeria has announced his intention to defect... and furthermore, he's also promising to reveal information about a British agent who is, in fact, a double-agent, and has been spying for the Russians since 1945.
So far, so familiar, especially if you're au fait with writers like Geoffrey Household, John le Carré, Len Deighton and Gavin Lyall. Indeed, the first chapter of Duns's novel is so akin to reading an espionage thriller from that postwar golden age that it's like slipping on a much-loved, battered, too-big sweatshirt – or, perhaps more accurately, a well-worn smoking jacket (and cravat, obv). There's much talk of "traitor country" and "high stakes" and, inevitably – and purposely – "the Cambridge gang", i.e. Philby, Burgess, Blunt et al. I found myself settling in for a no-doubt enjoyable but ultimately comfortable read.
As a contemporary take on the classic espionage thriller, there's a harder edge to Free Agent than you'd perhaps find in a story from that '60s period, at least in the characterization of our lead. Because if you thought James Bond was a bit of a cold bastard (however unfair that belief), wait till you get a load of Paul Dark. Dark is, at root, a total shit. His sense of self-preservation far outweighs anything he feels for friends, lovers or allies. The body count he's directly responsible for is relatively low, but as a result of some of his actions the corpses really start piling up. The analogy isn't terribly accurate, but essentially, if you prefer your Parkers or Ripleys to your Jacks Ryan or Reacher, then Paul Dark is the man for you. Needless to say, I absolutely loved him.
Free Agent is the first in a trilogy of Paul Dark novels; I've got a copy of the second one, 2010's Free Country, winging its way to me, while the final volume, Free World, is currently scheduled for February next year. I for one am in for the long haul. And the next post in Spy Fiction Fortnight also has a link to Mr. Duns, in that it's on a book I was inspired to track down as a result of a comment he made on a post earlier in the year. But more than that, it comes with a handwritten letter by the author of said novel, which offers a fascinating glimpse into the relationship between writer and editor...
NB: Click here for an exclusive interview with Jeremy Duns.
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