by Jeremy Duns (Simon & Schuster)
ISBN 978 1 84737 442 4. 342pp. Hbk
“I’d become so bloody soft I had actually been looking forward to a bit of drama,” muses Paul Dark in the opening pages of Free Agent, Duns’ debut novel and the first of his new spy trilogy. Set in Britain and Nigeria in the 1960s, during the height of the Cold War and at the climax of the Nigerian civil war, Duns interweaves the political with the personal. The opening epigraph from Vivian Grey shows off the high literary tone Duns is aiming for:
“Man is not the creature of circumstances; circumstances are the creature of men. We are free agents, and man is more powerful than matter.” Benjamin Disraeli
With eight pages of research, comprising an author’s note and a bibliography, Free Agent wears its ‘scholarly’ credentials on its sleeve. Do we need to be told that Duns has done his homework? Actually, yes. It adds texture and also serves to distract from the nagging question of why this spy book skips back to Cold War espionage.
The story is a mixed bag of double-cross and personal dilemma. Slavin, a Russian agent, communicates from Lagos that he wants to defect to the West. Importantly, he comes bearing information about a secret double agent, code-named Radnya, working at the heart of MI6. Behind it all lies a murky mission at the end of the Second World War that involved Dark and his father, which brings added personal conflict.
Is he or is he not Radnya? Like the best of spies, Dark is complex. Dark indeed. He’s loyal yet conflicted, loving yet ruthless. To complicate matters more he has a dangerous secret love to add an edge of vulnerability to his steely character. Except it doesn’t quite work. The romantic flashback scenes portray Dark like a lovesick Labrador puppy. Drawn from the stable of stock spies, he is a fusion of George Smiley’s intellect and Jason Bourne’s vigour combined with the calculating coldness of Deighton’s nameless hero in The Ipcress File. Unlike these cold mercenaries who illicit readerly sympathy, Dark can kill the man who “treated him like the son he never had” without batting an eye and, despite his inner turmoil and moral dilemma, draws surprisingly little empathy.
Plausibility is stretched to the limit. Dark is well over 30 but must be super-fit for the boundless energy on display here. He is tougher than everyone else and survives injuries that would fell even 007. And it’s inconceivable that a clever agent would use the same disguise in 1969 that they had passed off in 1945. Added to that, the language is clunky, over-written in places, with an over-use of the semi-colon and colon.
What is good about Free Agent is the way Duns builds suspense and edginess.
That made me laugh. My life falling apart, and he was feeding me B-film lines. Judging by the expression on his face, I was sounding a touch hysterical, so I carried on, out of spite. I felt sorry for him too, of course: his longest serving-agent losing his nerve so spectacularly. But there it was- the taste of betrayal fresh in my mouth, and I felt sick with it and desperate to lash out. Perhaps I would use the gun again tonight.
Free Agent is good but flawed.