Friday 13 April 2012

The Ninth Directive by Adam Hall (1966, Quiller #2): Book Review, Guest-Starring Jeremy Duns

Continuing this run of posts centring on spy novelist Jeremy Duns – whose latest Paul Dark thriller, The Moscow Option, was published in the UK yesterday – next I'm reviewing a book that isn't, in fact, by Jeremy at all, but instead is by one of his favourite authors – and, indeed, is one of his favourite spy novels – as Jeremy himself will shortly elucidate...

The Ninth Directive by Adam Hall was first published in 1966 by Heinemann in the UK and Simon & Schuster in the US (and is now available as an ebook and paperback from Top Notch Thrillers, which is the cover you can see above). Now, I have blogged about this book before, when I showcased a signed edition in September of last year. I've also blogged about Adam Hall – alias Elleston Trevor – previously, notably in this run of posts on his nineteen-book espionage series starring secret agent Quiller, of which The Ninth Directive is the second instalment (following 1965's The Berlin Memorandum). Quiller, for the uninitiated, is an operative of The Bureau, an ultra-secret British intelligence outfit which doesn't, officially, exist. The Quiller novels are all written in the first-person, Quiller's unique narrative style – with his curiously clipped sentences, his automaton-like reciting and numbering of facts, and his deployment of shorthand phrases like "red sector", "no go" and "so forth" – being one of the chief draws.

Another draw, of course, is that the Quiller novels are terrific spy thrillers, The Ninth Directive being a case in point. This time out, Quiller finds himself in Bangkok at the behest of his Bureau controller, Loman, who tasks Quiller with an unusual assignment: a "representative of the Queen" – only ever referred to in the narrative as "The Person", but clearly Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh – will be embarking on a goodwill tour of the city, and Loman has the following instructions for Quiller: "During the visit we want you to arrange for his assassination."

That gobsmacking order closes out the first chapter (evidently Jeremy Duns learned a thing or two from Adam Hall in terms of injecting a jolting volte-face into the opening chapter of a novel), but as becomes clear thereafter, the mission is more nuanced than that would suggest: a credible threat on The Person's life has been received, so Quiller's task is to determine how that assassination might occur, and to stop it happening. Unfortunately, the assassin is Kuo the Mongolian, whose speciality is long-range hits using a rifle, which leaves Quiller with two factors to work out: where on The Person's route the attempted assassination will take place, and more importantly, from where.

There follows a deadly game of cat and mouse – with much "tagging" and "flushing" (i.e., tailing and losing tails) – as Quiller tries to track down Kuo and his cell, an endeavour which is complicated by the involvement of "Mil6", who seem inordinately interested in Quiller. Why they are, and what Kuo's ultimate aim is provide a number of twists to the tale, leading to some searing and brutal set pieces, with Quiller facing seemingly certain death on a number of occasions. But he also finds time for love – or at least what passes for love in Quiller's world, which is to say a one-night stand with an equally damaged fellow operative – and the Bangkok backdrop against which the action is set is vivid and convincing.

Mind you, as Jeremy Duns recently pointed out to me, it's debatable how well Adam Hall knew Thailand, as Hall rarely visited the places he wrote about. Jeremy notes: "I was surprised to read an interview with him in which he revealed that he very rarely wrote about locations he had visited, because he found he lost the magic when he did that. Quite an astonishing thing to do, really. For the most part I think it's impossible to tell, and he makes locations come alive."

For Jeremy, "The Ninth Directive probably ties with The Tango Briefing [Quiller #5, 1973] for my favourite spy novel full stop. I read both in 2000, I think, one after the other. I love The Ninth Directive because it's both very pulpy in terms of plot – assassinate the assassin – but simultaneously seems extremely authentic. While reading the novel, you really believe that this is how a secret agent would think and act. It predates The Day of the Jackal by five years, but has much of that feeling of peeking inside a hidden world. I loved the way the target is never named, making it almost an elemental struggle to survive."

And there'll be plenty more from Mr. Duns, not only on Adam Hall but also on a variety of other topics, in the final post in this run of Duns: an exclusive Q&A with Jeremy, in which we discuss the books he read as a boy, his schooldays, how and where he writes, and of course his novels – including The Moscow Option – all illustrated with never-before-seen photos of his books. Look out for that over the weekend...

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Book Review: The Moscow Option by Jeremy Duns (Simon & Schuster, 2012); Paul Dark 3

This week I'm blogging about British expat (he currently lives in Stockholm) author Jeremy Duns, whose third thriller starring traitorous spy Paul Dark, The Moscow Option, is published by Simon & Schuster in the UK tomorrow (12 April), as both a paperback and an ebook. Yesterday I posted a review of the second Paul Dark novel, Song of Treason (formerly Free Country) – and of course my 2011 review of the first book in the trilogy, Free Agent, can be found here – and later in the week I'll be reviewing one of Jeremy's favourite espionage works, a cracking 1966 spy thriller by Adam Hall, before rounding off this run of posts with something very special indeed from Mr. Duns.

But let's turn now to the latest Paul Dark outing:

As with the initial two books in the trilogy, The Moscow Option is set in 1969 – and also as before, Duns bungs a tantalising twist into the opening chapter – although in this instance, it's followed by an even more gobsmacking moment in the second chapter. When last we left Paul Dark at the end of Song of Treason, he'd been forcibly extracted to Moscow, along with fellow British Intelligence operative Sarah Severn, there to await whatever fate his Soviet (former) masters decide for him. The Moscow Option opens five months on, and finds Dark languishing in a Russian prison cell, utterly bereft of hope and subjected to intermittent interrogation. So when he's marched out of his cell by a guard, he fully expects to be facing a firing squad. Instead, he's deposited in the back of a car with Sarah, driven to a nondescript building, and then taken in through the structure's air-locked door. The realization dawns that he's inside a nuclear bunker.

If that isn't alarming enough, in the lower levels of the bunker he's ushered into a huge hall, where, seated around a circular table are "around thirty elderly men, some of them wearing dark suits but most in uniform". One man is standing, "shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows... I didn't recognize him at first, because he was wearing spectacles and his hair was slightly in disarray, but then he looked up through dark eyes under thick eyebrows, and I realized with a start that it was Brezhnev."

It transpires that Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev and the gathered military and intelligence chiefs – among them GRU head Ivashutin and KGB head Andropov – believe that the USSR is under attack by the United States, and are debating launching a preemptive nuclear strike. A chemical assault on the Estonian coast has been reported, and eight American B-52 bombers have been detected heading towards Russia, armed with thermonuclear weapons. Dark can't explain the bombers, but based on his own experiences during the war he quickly determines that the chemical attack is almost certainly in reality a leak of mustard gas canisters, the forgotten cargo of a sunken U-boat. Unfortunately, the Russians don't believe him, and so he and Sarah effect a perilous escape and go on the run in order to try and prove the chemical incident is an accident, and so halt the impending nuclear Armageddon.

All of the Paul Dark thrillers draw on historical events for inspiration – each book has an Author's Note at the back detailing Duns's research (as well as a Select Bibliography) – but in The Moscow Option Duns goes one better by introducing actual players from the era – not only Brezhnev et al but also Cambridge spy and defector Donald Maclean, whom Dark recruits in his efforts to escape Moscow. (Kim Philby, who was also living in Moscow at this point, gets a mention, too, and was originally slated for a cameo – I'll be returning to that in the final post in this run.) Moreover, the Author's Note in The Moscow Option sheds light, in a frankly terrifying fashion, on how close the world came to nuclear apocalypse in 1969: as part of his "Madman Theory", President Nixon did indeed order B-52s to fly close to the Soviet border.

But Duns's clever interweaving of the real and the imaginary aside, The Moscow Option is a terrific helter skelter thrill ride in its own right. Paul and Sarah's desperate dash across Russia is utterly gripping, as they're pursued by the police, the army and the GRU, commanded by Paul's former handlers, Yuri and Sasha. The action surges from set piece to set piece – a scene in a Moscow cafe where Paul and Sarah await a contact is a masterclass of escalating tension – punctuated by moments of black humour (some of Dark's snarky asides and sarcastic put-downs are priceless; at one point he finds himself soaking wet and covered in human faeces and debates whether to remove his clothes so as to avoid hypothermia, but decides "a man in wet clothes with shit all over his face would still be more welcome than a naked one") and reflective interludes, as Paul uncovers yet more revelations about his time as a double-agent, especially regarding the death of his father. And though Paul's foreknowledge of the mustard gas strikes one as being perhaps a little too fortuitous, that can ultimately be forgiven both for lending purpose to his role in the story, and because The Moscow Option is so strong overall: to my mind, it's at least as good as the first book in the series, Free Agent, and in some respects is even better. And while its ending is decidedly downbeat, there is a small glimmer of hope, in that Jeremy reports there are further Paul Dark novels to come.

And speaking of Jeremy, next in this series of Duns-shaped posts I'll be reviewing one of his favourite novels – Adam Hall's 1966 Quiller thriller The Ninth Directive – with additional insight from Mr. Duns himself...

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Book Review: Song of Treason (Formerly Free Country) by Jeremy Duns; Paul Dark Trilogy 2

The name Jeremy Duns has cropped up on Existential Ennui a considerable number of times over the past year-and-a-half, as spy fiction has come to increasingly dominate my reading and therefore the concerns of this blog. The "Abiding Preoccupations" tag-cloud in the right-hand column suggests there are currently seventeen posts (including this one) featuring Mr. Duns, but I suspect there are still more besides which I've yet to label, and, no doubt, many more to come. Jeremy has been invaluable in the writing of some of my spy fiction blog posts – generous with his time and forthcoming with enlightening additional information on, for example, Len Deighton, Sarah Gainham, Graham Greene and Joseph Hone – and both helpful and encouraging on many others.

But of course, we mustn't forget that besides being an espionage aficionado and a regular contributor not only to Existential Ennui but to many other blogs besides (including his own) – not to mention a journalist of long experience – Jeremy is an accomplished spy novelist in his own right – and this week is as good a time as any to remind us of that salient fact, because Simon & Schuster will be publishing the third novel in his Paul Dark trilogy on Thursday. I reviewed the first novel in the series, the excellent Free Agent (2009), in February of last year, and I'll be reviewing the new book, The Moscow Option, later this week – and then following that up with a review of one of Jeremy's favourite novels, before rounding off this run of Duns posts with something very special indeed.

But first I thought I'd take a look at the second Paul Dark thriller:

Song of Treason was first published by Simon & Schuster in paperback last year – at least, under that title. Because as Jeremy explains in this blog post, it originally appeared under the title Free Country in 2010, the idea being that each of the three novels in the trilogy would have "Free" in the title (the third book was to be called Free World). Simon & Schuster, however, "felt there was a danger that Free Country might not signal to those who hadn't read the first book in the series, Free Agent, that it was a spy thriller". Jeremy agreed, and came up with the more apposite Song of Treason. (Incidentally, the novel was published as an ebook for the first time last week.)

Free Agent opened with one of the best twists I've ever read in a thriller, one which I'm now, out of necessity, going to spoil, so if you haven't read Free Agent yet, I'd advise you to get yourself a copy before going any further. Set in 1969, the book began with Paul Dark, British secret agent, being summoned to the country retreat of the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, Sir Colin Templeton, where he learns that a Russian defector in Nigeria has information about a double-agent at the heart of SIS. As we discover at the close of the opening chapter, that traitor is Dark himself, and he promptly murders Templeton in order to cover his tracks, thereafter jetting to Africa to seek out the Soviet defector.

That rug-pulling twist was always going to be hard to beat in the second book in the series, but Duns does his damndest to top it in Song of Treason, which kicks off shortly after the events of Free Agent, in May 1969. Dark, having regained the trust of his SIS colleagues (or so he believes) and now in line to become Deputy Chief, is delivering a eulogy at Templeton's funeral at St. Paul's when he pauses mid-address, unable to continue. Acting Chief John Farraday approaches the lectern to find out what's wrong, and then falls to the ground, blood "gushing from the centre of his shirt". Farraday has been shot and killed, but Dark quickly surmises that the shot was actually meant for he himself.

From there, the action moves to Rome, as it's believed by Dark's colleagues that Farraday's assassination was the work of an Italian communist group called Arte come Terror. Of course, Dark believes something rather different, namely that his Russian handlers attempted to kill him due to his endeavours in Africa. The truth, however, is even more disturbing, and before long Dark, still suffering from the after-effects of a disease he picked up in Africa, is locked into a battle of wits with a Soviet agent and then abducted and tortured alongside Sarah Severn, the wife of head of Italian station, Charles Servern.

That brutal torture sequence recalls such infamous similar scenes as James Bond's severe grilling at the hands of Le Chiffre in Ian Fleming's Casino Royale or Quiller's attempts to resist a drug-induced interrogation in Adam Hall's The Berlin Memorandum – quite purposefully, Duns being an acknowledged appreciator of both novels – but it's also informed by public school initiation ceremonies – something Duns is personally familiar with, having attended public school as a boy. Indeed, Paul Dark's experiences at school – in particular one brutal episode – in part drive the narrative, alongside his exploits as a mole – especially his recruitment after the war – and the nefarious manipulations of a shadowy right-wing group. As Paul and Sarah embark on a feverish – literally in Dark's case – dash to the Vatican and then Turin, there are double-crosses and violent encounters aplenty, culminating in a jaw-dropping revelation and an unexpected extraction.

Dark remains as fascinating a creation as he was in Free Agent – duplicitous and willing to go to any lengths to save his own skin, but also questioning (his caustic, often irritable narration is peppered with reflective moments of self-examination), utterly determined to stop the impending atrocity he uncovers, and increasingly dedicated to ensuring Sarah's safety. He's no hero, but some of the things he does are certainly heroic, and his loss of faith in his communist ideals lends him an alluring ambiguity – an agent shunned by all sides, yet still driven to do the right thing. But as thrilling as Song of Treason is – and like its predecessor, it really is up there with the best of Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, Adam Hall, Geoffrey Household, Gavin Lyall, Desmond Cory and countless other past spy fiction masters – the final part of the trilogy is even better, as the stakes are raised to unimaginable levels and Dark finds himself attempting to stop nothing less than the devastation of the entire planet...