Sunday, 12 December 2010


When I reviewed Free Agent, Jeremy Duns' first Paul Dark spy thriller in Crime Time (you can link to that review here) I said I thought a series which examined some of the shadowy geo-politics of the 1960s from a critical point of view would be fascinating--Free Agent dealt with both the Biafaran war and domestic intelligence plots against Harold Wilson--and Free Country has indeed continued down that path, with the plots against the Labour government now folded into a strategy of those agencies committing terrorist acts which will be blamed on communists and other domestic left wingers, thus itensifying the Cold War and neutralising left-wing political parties at the same time. Since one of Duns' major sources is the estimable Robin Ramsey, editor of Lobster (for whom I write, interest declared) I find these plot threads fascinating. And in light of the current Orwellian War of Terror, Free Country resonates with a moral for our times.

Much as I enjoy such enlightenment, I had also noted in that review that the strongest part of his story was the bit that highlighted the internal workings of MI6, specifically the hunt for moles and the question of whether or not Dark would be outed as a double-agent. Duns is brilliant when he has Dark matching wits with his fellow intelligence operatives, thinking on his feet and improvising, as it were. It works that he is in no way a particularly likeable character--in fact, his character often seems as featureless as Harry Palmer's, if more interesting. The blurbs had called him a cross between Bond and Bourne; really he's much closer to John Gardner's more tongue-in-cheek Boysie Oakes, and when the tension of his battles within MI6 is played as a sort of black comedy is when Duns' touch is deftest.

But as with Free Agent, Free Country resolves itself in what I called then a rock 'em sock 'em race against time, with Dark battling skilled intelligence operatives while hanging off the side of St Peter's in Rome, and more. Again, it works better in the black comic, nod and a wik sense, and that is where the problem lies. Put simply, the seriousness of the issues Duns approaches, and approaches well, sometimes cause the story to grind to a halt for explanation. In the midst of tongue-in-cheek adventure, that's a difficulty. Dark's problems with being unmasked, sinister plots to rework the political spectrum, and indeed, the building of a love interest, all require a slower build than Free Country, once it gets going, can comfortably afford. It's a fun ride with a deeper meaning, but it should be a deeper ride with a lot of fun. And with Dark ending up in Moscow, the possibilities for the third of the prospective trilogy are limitless.

One small but telling quibble amidst all the excellent research. The appearance of the word 'soccer' in a 1969 MI6 report would not indicate the influence or presence of Americans. Soccer is the word any upper or middle class intelligence officer would use to refer to association football, just as he might say 'rugger' for the type of football he would inevitable prefer. Look up the BBC's 1969 Soccer Annual if you doubt me!


Guy Walters said...

I'm afraid you're incorrect about the use of the word 'soccer'. Top drawer Brits have used 'football' for decades - in fact you only have to look at 1960s le Carré to see his posh characters using 'football'. Remember, BBC English is not the same as Posh English! Best wishes, Guy

Michael Carlson said...

I am not saying posh characters would not say football, I am saying that the word 'soccer' was not in 1969 an automatic Americanism. But I would say posh people did not by and large attend football matches in those days.

The word soccer,which is English, not American, is derived from 'association' in almost exactly the same way as 'rugger' came from rugby (if it were exactly the same it would be asser, more appropriate to the sport, but obviously a non starter).

I've lived in Britain for 33 years, and even when I first arrived no one called football the beautiful game, it had third status in broadsheets, and the middle, upper middle and indeed posh people I encountered used soccer and football interchangeably.

The association, as it were, of soccer with America has everything to do with middle class lads of the 90s latching onto the Nick Hornby nostalgia (itself an echo of the baseball revival some years earlier in America) in reaction to the terminal decline in football in the late 70s and rise of American football in the 80s--prompting modernisation as in the Premier League as well as the anti-soccer thing.

After all, the Aussie national team is called the 'socceroos', because if you say 'football' in Oz you mean Aussie Rules, I never hear anyone say 'the game the Australians call football'.

Michael Carlson said...

and the BBC certainly was aspirational toward posh in those days--or havent you heard the Charlotte Green voices all their announcers had? And the BBC Soccer Annual was 'edited' by Peter Dimmmock, CVO, OBE--a long way from Motty or Gary Lineker

Unknown said...

As an Irish person who lived in America and is now back in Ireland, the word football has always caused me problems. I find it unnatural to say soccer, but football means American Football to me whereas it means soccer to most of the people in Dublin. Outside Dublin it means Gaelic Football more or less.
Realistically, it's not even a beautiful game anymore, given the ham acting and injury feigning and all that comes with it. I think we should start calling it Sports Entertainment, and lump it in with wrestling.