Monday, 28 February 2011

Spy Fiction Fortnight: Free Agent by Jeremy Duns – a Review (Simon & Schuster)

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...

Jeremy Duns's Free Agent was first published in hardback in the UK by Simon & Schuster in 2009, with a stylish, angular, kinetic (hints of 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.

And then right at the end of that first chapter Duns yanks the rug out from under your feet, upending a table in the process and sending whiskey carafe, crystal tumblers and cut glass ash tray crashing to the floor. All of a sudden up is down, black is white, and there's no way of predicting where the story's going to go. I shan't ruin the surprise for you, but from here on out, Dark enters a twisting labyrinth of deceit, double-crosses and danger, as he makes his way to Nigeria to track down both the Soviet attache and a Rusian nurse with a wartime connection to the Chief, as well as to Dark, to Dark's MIA father and to Dark's colleague and rival in the Secret Service, head of Africa Section Henry Pritchard. And snaking through it all is a possible plot to assassinate British Prime Minister Harold Wilson...

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.

Duns cleverly weaves historical events into the narrative, including the Nigerian civil war and consequent visit to the country of Harold Wilson. In an Author's Note at the back of the book Duns points out that while there's no record of an attempt on Wilson's life, there were numerous plots and conspiracies against him. (Duns also mentions Cambridge traitor Kim Philby's autobiography My Silent War, which is a book I'd very much like to read myself.) This positioning of the tale in a real past lends it an urgency and a velocity that a totally fictionalised historical setting might not possess; the sequences where Dark gets mixed up in the Nigerian war are particularly vivid, shining a light on a dark and little-known period of history that Duns identifies as "a superpower conflict by proxy".

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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