Saturday, May 2, 2009

Free Agent

Review: Jeremy Duns Goes Dark in Free Agent

By Wesley Britton

Free Agent by Jeremy Duns
Viking Adult (June 25, 2009 in U.S.)
Hardcover: 352 pages
ISBN-10: 0670021016
ISBN-13: 978-0670021017

One tendency in book promotions that’s always driven me a bit nuts is the desire of literary agents, publishers, and reviewers to classify new novels and writers by comparing them to what has come before. I understand why. The point is to tell potential readers that, if you liked the latest by, say, Charles Cumming, you’ll enjoy this new offering by Ramone Unknown or whomever. But, in spy fiction, there’s another element in all this puffery. That is to attempt to anoint new novelists as those worthy of taking on the mantles of the Holy Trinity of Fleming, Le Carre`, or Deighton. Sometimes, the likes of Robert Littell will be mentioned to signal that the reviewer knows there’s been a wealth of spy fiction since the 1960s. Still, the theme often continues to be--what is the new writer doing that carries on the legacies of those who shaped the templates of espionage literature?

I’m as guilty as anyone else in this regard. As I turn the pages of new books, I find myself thinking how this read reminds me of one classic or another—or not. Take Free Agent, the first book from Swedish spy expert Jeremy Duns. Free Agent can’t help but beg comparison with the novels written during the Cold War as it is set in 1969 and the background is filled with reminders of the defections of Kim Philby and the “Cambridge Spy Ring.” Duns tosses out obvious bread crumbs to remind us of his forbearers—the British Secret Service is referred to as “The Circus” and he even briefly invokes the name of the Dreaded SMERSH. One Russian handler has the code name “Sasha,” the same moniker as the mole James Jesus Angleton feared throughout his tenure as head of counter-intelligence for the CIA. In the first pages of Free Agent, we’re reminded of operations during the aftermath of World War II where the lead protagonist, Paul Dark, was first tutored in the then nastiest tasks in undercover missions—taking out alleged ex-Nazis. Like Deighton before him, Duns added “family of spies” elements as it was Dark’s father who mentored his son in the unsanctioned killings of old enemies. Toss in the old lover who was supposedly murdered but wasn’t—which will allow double-agent Paul Dark to eventually investigate a mystery with very personal dimensions. Sound familiar?

The major twist in the story is that this book centers on a mole hunt from the mole’s point of view told in the first person. This means, in very short time, the reader knows Paul Dark is no heroic figure. In the first chapter, he murders the chief of MI6 because Dark’s 26 year cover as a Soviet plant is about to be blown. From that point forward, the main story is how Dark tries to hide his tracks of that murder and his quest to keep his treason secret. In the first 100 pages, I was indeed reminded of a past master, Graham Greene, in particular The Human Factor. Not the style or character development, but Greene’s often obvious sympathies with those on the other side of the Cold War fence. (Duns has admitted one influence was Derek Marlowe's book, A Dandy in Aspic, which also dealt with a traitor but was, admittedly, a very different breed of story.) However, unlike the characters of Greene or even Le Carre`, there’s no ideological or class war involved in Free Agent. We have a despicable narrator on the run with only one mission—to save his own skin.

The early passages, for me, were the most problematic. I was never clear what Paul Dark’s real motivations were for being a traitor to Queen and country. Yes, he was angry over rogue British operations he felt were not any different from the perceived evil of the Soviet bloc. His first contact, Anna, an alleged nurse in a hospital, ran intellectual Marxist circles around his thinly thought out defenses of the British way of life. But, in one scene he rejects her romantic overtures, the next she’s being removed in an ambulance, and then suddenly he wants to be a double-agent. For 26 years, he apparently never rethought his actions. Well, perhaps that’s the point. A simple broken-heart was all it took to keep him going for his entire career in MI6.

This is what makes Paul Dark difficult to empathize with. In the early pages, we see what Dark does but with little depth to tell us why. After his killing of his chief, we hear no words of remorse, no thoughts of the consequences of his actions beyond his drive for self-preservation. He’s able to avoid suspicion for his chief’s murder largely due to his agency’s astonishing lackadaisical response to their superior’s disappearance. With all the worries about moles, you’d think they’d be all over that situation with fine-tooth combs. Instead, Dark maneuvers himself a trip to Lagos in order to track down the one man who can finally expose him and do so in time to allow Dark to come up with reasonable explanations for his disobeying orders. Perhaps he is right—his strange behavior can be explained away. To his superiors at least, if not for we readers. This was a guy I wanted caught. I presumed what we would encounter, sooner or later, was some form of redemption. Well, to a minor degree, that’s what happens.

It’s after Paul Dark arrives in Nigeria during the Biafra War that Free Agent becomes what it was meant to be—a fast-paced “flight and fight” thriller where we forget Dark isn’t a character we should be rooting for. Not to give too much away, he comes to learn of the betrayals that set him up to become a dirty double all those years ago. He finds himself having to stop the assassination of British Prime Minister Harold Wilson who’s come to Nigeria to draft a peace plan. By the last page, we are at last rooting for a traitor and cold-blooded murderer trying to get out of it all—but that won’t happen until, at least, the announced sequel—Free Country.

What all this means is that Free Agent is like those thrillers of old that readers would pick up in airport terminals and lose themselves in while traveling to their probably less than exotic destinations. And then forget about. It’s a book that shows the research that went into it. For example, Duns’s setting of Biafra, far from a typical location for a spy novel of the time, is a welcome change from the usual European cities or Caribbean islands where Bond and his ilk fought most of their duels with super-charged gangsters in proxy Cold Wars. We even get the Flemingesque “sacrificial lamb,” a journalist named Isabel who Dark picks up and becomes an immediate and competent partner in his adventure before her convenient disposal. Too bad—she was the most intriguing supporting character, but yet another whose motivations remain an open question.

I admit being curious about the next two books in the trilogy. Will Dark get out from under the thumb of the Soviets? Will he actually pay a price for his long-standing treason and other crimes? Sure, he saves the day in the end, but he isn’t redeemed in any real sense. Well, stay tuned. Duns is competent enough a storyteller to fill in the holes. So far, we’ve gotten a very readable page-turner if not a new iconic figure to invest ourselves in.

For other book reviews by Wesley Britton, see the “Spies in History and Literature” files at—