Wednesday, 17 August 2011


It has always been possible to divide espionage novels between what might be called the covert and overt. The first group deals with individuals caught in the webs of bureaucracy and betrayal, and often features little action; when they do it is often anti-climactic, small actions with larger impact, which require great sacrifice on the part of otherwise ordinary people. It has its antecedents in detective fiction—but its heroes tend to be along the lines of the anonymous Continental Op, or the lonely private dick, rather than the Poirots or Wimseys of classic who-dun-its.

The second group deals in action, in the efforts of people who are increasingly above the ordinary, who often hold the fate of the world in their firm grip. This group has its antecedents in the adventure novels of empire, and in American terms in westerns, and would of course include James Bond. Since the fall of the iron curtain, and the removal of a stable (and relatively equal) enemy from the spy genre, this second style of novel has predominated—this has coincided happily with the swing in movie-making toward ever-increasing reliance on special effects. There's another essay to be written on the ripple effects of asymmetrical conflict.

Matthew Dunn's first novel, Spartan, comes down very much in the second camp, and comes down with a bang. He has delivered a thriller with fast action, a great villain, several twists and turns, and enough ambiguity to escape the many of the obvious pitfalls of genre cliché. But to my mind he is trying to do something different, which is to force his hero, Will Cochrane, the eponymous agent code-named Spartan by MI6, into a world of conscience, where moral dilemmas inform his action hero. That Dunn is a former MI6 operative, who ran agents himself, is significant, because the most interesting part of the novel is its set-up, and Will's relationships with the people he runs. Normally, these are the kind of pawns set up for betrayal in either sort of spy thriller, but Will, for reasons that go deep into his family past (his father was a CIA agent) attempts what might be seen as a kinder, gentler approach to the business.

This is fascinating stuff because he is pitted against an Iranian mastermind, Meggido, who always seems one step ahead. In fact, Meggido turns out to be the most interesting character in the book, and it is a shame he is forced to remain off-stage for so long. But if the duel between these two is the root of the book's strength it is also its weakness, because it is a battle of super-hero against super-villain, which for all its twists and turns is apparently resolved by a simple quick-draw showdown. I say apparently, because Dunn adds a last twist, which forces Will to finally abandon his effort a being a kinder, gentler spy. Not that he actually was: for the all the talk of saving innocent life, Will calmly butchers four allied agents guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the same time as his crew. It is a very English sort of morality.

As the book pushes forward relentlessly, Spartan begins to push Will out of the picture. Still, I wonder what's really going on in MI6. Picture this: Will wanders into Albany, New York, fresh from shootouts, capture, chases through the snow, killings, and narrowly missing Meggido, and although he judges the airport too dangerous, hops the Amtrack to New York City. Why wouldn't the FBI think of that? In the meantime, however, he has gone shopping in Albany's finest stores, and what essentials has he found? Some 'men's Chanel Platinum Egoiste eau de toilette' (no agent leaves home without it--otherwise the bad guys wouldn't be able to smell you coming!), a Hugo Boss suit, and 'matching brogues'. I don't know about you, but I've never met a man who matched his shoes and suits, much less a secret agent! On the other hand, Hugo Boss designed some swell matching outfits for the SS, and Coco Chanel was a Nazi fan, so maybe there's just a natural affinity! Will then 'secretes' a silenced H&K MK23, three clips, a cell phone, and two thousand bucks into his new suit. Either Hugo Boss is tailoring for the loose fit these days or Spartan bought a few sizes too big. We're used to the catalogues of equipment in this kind of thriller, and indeed Dunn gives us a few (as an aside: the nadir of this style might be the Chris Ryan-style BONA, or Boys-Own Novel with Acronyms, you can find my essay on Ryan and Allan Hollinghurst here).

I make this criticism somewhat tongue-in-unscented-cheek, but there are other problems with having your super-villain such a remarkable character. In order to get some understanding, you have to inevitably bring him together with Will, which means he has to leave Will alive for his own egotistical reasons, which means you get a very long 'Blofield' scene, in which Meggido keeps Will alive just a little longer in order to reveal the details of his plot to take over the world. Again, Dunn provides us with another well-placed twist that explains, but does not really manage to subvert, the convention within which he's operating.

There is one further problem with the spy thriller conventions, and that is dialogue. Far too often, characters need to explain things to the audience, so they wind up telling each other what they obviously already know. Spartan gets a lot of this, particularly because Will's peculiar morality means he's beset with doubts, never a good thing in this business, and he's acting in ways people in the demimonde don't really expect. So we are often getting people explaining Will to himself, mainly telling him how super, or how sensitive, or how super-sensitive he is. And finally, there is the arch-villain kind of line: 'you are lying to me in a futile attempt to justify your father's actions.'

In the end, the super hero triumphs, but pays a price. But because he is a super hero, he moves on. Dunn has produced a compelling, if uneven, first thriller, and given Britain the new James Bond, eau de toilette and all, that Daniel Craig could not.

Spartan by Matthew Dunn Swordfish, £12.99, ISBN 9780857820198

1 comment :

Robin Wynn said...

I thought the writing childish and repetitive. With one bound he was free, then he was caught, then free, then caught again. He was shot in the arm, the head, stabbed in the legs with broken glass, knocked unconcious, blown up, set fire to yet curiously not killed even though he was continuously at the villain's mercy. What was most irritating was the writing, short sentences all beginning with the same phrase. The killing of the four DGSE agets was ridiculous and I am still at a loss to understand why, since he was himself captured was it necessary to kill his agent Soroush 'to save him from the enemy'. What is even funnier is the praise from Lee Child,Jefferey Deaver, the Financial Times et al. Did they even read the book.