by Matthew Dunn
Published by William Morrow
432 pages, 2011
by Matthew Dunn
Published by Swordfish
400 pages, 2011
Reviewed by Ali Karim
I was interested to hear last year that former Penguin UK editorial director and author Rowland White had joined Orion Publishing to help launch a new thriller-fiction imprint, Swordfish. That imprint’s first novel landed on my doorstep a couple of weeks ago. Titled Spartan in Britain, and Spycatcher in the States, it was penned by a former Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6) field operative, Matthew Dunn.
Despite my interest in thrillers, this book remained for a long time at the bottom of my reading pile, partly because I perceived it as having a cliché-driven plot. Besides, plenty of thriller writers purport to have had connections and experience with the looking-glass world that is espionage. But as we all know, a spy background doesn’t necessarily result in the scribe having one iota of writing ability, and many thrillers these days seem to mine their tales from the same pool of international terrorism that Spartan taps. A number of those books contain stereotypical, caricature-ish protagonists and antagonists, some of them verging on downright racist depictions -- anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-Communist and as is so common nowadays, anti-Muslim. Their authors show themselves to be lazy in crafting “bad guys,” merely hoping to exploit media-roused fears about certain “types” of people and thereby make a few bucks. If you want cheap, these sorts of novels are out there for the taking. However, if you want quality storytelling, then you need to sift more carefully through the ever-rising flood of crap.
Since I’m a very high-volume reader, I must ruthlessly prioritize my book consumption by (a) taking recommendations from people I trust, (b) juggling publishing dates for review purposes, (c) looking for plots that appeal or appear to bear some insight, and (d) keeping my radar tuned for debut novels, especially those that don’t enjoy significant reveille from their publishers. Dunn’s novel originally ticked only one of those four boxes: it was a debut work being brought out quietly. However, during this summer’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, England, I sat down for a glass of wine with author Lee Child and asked him what new books had recently impressed him. Among those he mentioned was Spartan/Spycatcher.
So after returning home, I cracked the spine of Dunn’s first novel. Totally against expectations (I had assumed I could read for a while, then put the book down easily and make off for bed), I soon found myself gripping the work tightly, like a steering wheel, and reading it all through that night. By the time light broke through my window again, I felt that Matthew Dunn had injected back into my life the exhilaration that only reading a top-notch thriller can bring. It made me look more closely at the rest of my to-be-read mountain, thinking perhaps there were other gems there that I’d ignored.
What made Spartan/Spycatcher such an engaging journey?
Let me say, first, that the cliché of a British “super-spy” defeating an international terrorist plot was not what glued this novel into my sweaty palms. There are already far too many such works on my bookshelves, written by much better-known talents ranging from Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming and Alistair MacLean to John le Carré and Fredrick Forsyth. It should also be noted that Dunn’s book demonstrates strong American influences, from writers including Robert Littell and David Morrell.
Spartan/Spycatcher boasted a few unique ingredients. I know that “unique” is a word over-employed by amateur reviewers and marketing folks, but in this case I think it pertains. Be patient while I try to explain.
Dunn’s tale unfolds from the start with a depth of insider knowledge that’s not only remarkable, but un-showy. Consider this extract from early in the book:
There can be no doubt that the man who composed this novel is someone who has survived residency in the realm of modern espionage. Novels by people only claiming an inside track just try too hard. Dunn gives the reader the sense of being on the Titanic and seeing the fatal iceberg emerging from the ocean mist ahead. Only the tip of that behemoth is visible, but you know that you’re sailing inexorably toward a beast, and that the real horrors remain hidden. Dunn’s story focuses on to the uncertainty of fear, and the matter-of-fact brutality that people in the intelligence game witness. Through the eyes of his characters we follow that brutal path. What we see and feel is not pleasant, but at times the recoil of catharsis in such a random world seems comforting.
Spartan/Spycatcher opens in New York City’s Central Park, where British agent Will Cochrane and his team of covert MI6 men try to protect an Iranian “asset” -- a guy named Soroush -- from an Iranian hit-team. Things go very wrong very fast. The British agents are shot by the “hostiles,” forcing Cochrane to put a bullet into Soroush’s noggin. This is actually an act of mercy, for if Soroush had been captured, he’d have undergone horrific abuse, and his wife and young daughter would’ve been at terrible risk. Cochrane also knows that should torture turn Soroush voluble, British intelligence could be compromised. Although wounded while escaping, Cochrane is rescued by a CIA team headed by the mysterious “Patrick,” who makes sure our hero’s wounds are patched up and that he returns to London.
Back home, Cochrane is reunited with his SIS handler, “Alistair,” who is upset at the Central Park fiasco and unwilling to provide funds for assistance to Soroush’s family. (Without giving too much away, let me just note that “Alistair” and the CIA’s “Patrick” are linked to Cochrane’s past through a tragedy that provides our hero with a sense of purpose and dark motivation.) Some readers may find it jolting or incredible that Cochrane should thereafter empty his own savings and pass the money along to the spouse and child of the man he only recently killed, but Dunn fills the episode with a cold, precise compassion that makes it believable and rather unsettling.
Cochrane’s next assignment is to round up an über-terrorist, the Iranian Megiddo, who -- backed by his nation’s regime -- is plotting a violent outrage to occur either on the U.S. mainland or somewhere in the British Isles. (Or is he? This information, after all, was intercepted amid communications from a secret and not wholly trustworthy source.) What the Anglo-American alliance headed by Cochrane needs is some sort of lure to draw Megiddo from his protective shadows out into the open, where he can be compelled to pay for his past deeds and prevented from committing new atrocities. The best bait, Cochrane believes, is an Arab woman named Lana, who was once Megiddo’s lover. But the agent must gain her trust in order to bring Lana into this scheme ... and as we all know, trust in espionage circles is not easily won. Our hero has to hope that the old adage about “a woman scorned” is true, and that Lana’s own hunger to bring down Megiddo will benefit him in capturing the terrorist.
One weak element in Dunn’s novel relates to the back-story given Will Cochrane. Evidently, his professional nickname, Spartan, derives from the fact that he’s the one SIS agent who has been trained and tortured to be the best of the best. This seems a silly, comic-book twist; Cochrane’s character is perfectly formed without it. Fortunately, the author doesn’t belabor this super-spy component (which I hope will be further downplayed in any sequels), and the plot goes on.
Helping further to erase one’s memory of that weakness are the vibrancy of the author’s voice and the intriguing locations Cochrane encounters during his chase after the notorious Megiddo. Several of those locations invite introspection. Using the Eastern European backdrop reminds readers of the brutality and inhumanity that scarred the area during the Bosnian/Serbian conflicts. What’s more, Dunn contrasts those historical genocides against the violence Cochrane’s quarry is brewing.
My favorite section of this yarn focuses on the storming of a German terror cell. It nicely illustrates the differences between how the Brits and Americans now want to look at torture (as an alternative means of extracting information from thuggish anarchists), and the more liberal German way of enforcing human rights, even for terrorists. This dichotomy poses a problem, when Cochrane wants to keep one of the terrorists alive for “enhanced interrogation.” The Germans forbid it, saying their security team was operating under strict orders to ensure that the terrorists were all killed in the operation; if there are survivors, there will be human-rights implications and media questions that pose political problems back home. The sheer drama of this scene, coupled with the political and ethical issues involved, makes for excruciating tension. And Dunn’s bold, hard and logical writing style made me feel I was actually there, attacking the building.
The real cat-chasing-mouse part of Spartan/Spycatcher begins as Cochrane enlists a quartet of tough sidekicks to help him protect Lana, while they dangle her enticingly in front of Megiddo. A series of letters sent back and forth between Lana and Megiddo serves to lure the prey, and leads to assorted varieties of surveillance games. I was delighted by Dunn’s conscious chapter-length planning, as he measured out just enough plot to keep you hooked -- not the James Patterson-like chapters of one or two pages, nor 30-page Eric Ambler chapters, but something in between.
The editing of this novel appears to have been ruthless -- there’s not a spare word or excessive turn of phrase in evidence. Dunn’s sentence structure is terse and breathless, but his narrative gives off an existential air that contrasts with the kinetic energy propelling events forward, and moving the action back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. Returning to that Titanic metaphor, Will Cochrane knows he’s not seeing the full picture of what lies ahead with Megiddo, but as the climax approaches, there’s no time to rearrange deck chairs or prioritize women and children first. His only choice is to plunge into the cold, and hope that he can handle whatever dangers lurk beneath those he already knows exist.
So easy is it to become caught up in Dunn’s story, that at one point in my reading I seriously considered finding a first-aid kit, in case any stray bullets came flying my way out of this book’s pages.
To say much more would probably ruin the ride that Spartan/Spycatcher offers. Therefore, let me simply conclude by suggesting that Matthew Dunn will soon join the ranks of thriller novelists who’ve earned spots at the top table. Only the best of the best can capture you in the hypnotic manner Dunn does, sprinting out of the blocks with his very first novel. How far and fast he can go remains as unknown as an iceberg’s depths. | August 2011
Ali Karim is the assistant editor of Shots and a contributor to January Magazine and The Rap Sheet. He also writes for Crimespree Magazine, Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine and Mystery Readers Journal, and is an associate member of The Crime Writers Association, the International Thriller Writers and the Private Eye Writers of America. Karim has been nominated for an Anthony Award for special contributions to the crime and thriller genre three times.