Thursday 26 August 2010

More twists than a bag of pretzels - Jeremy Duns' Free Country

Part two of the Paul Dark trilogy
Paul Dark - double agent and cold-hearted killer - is most definitely back. Jeremy Duns' sixties spy, fresh from dealing with the terrifying and life-threatening demands of satisfying two Cold War masters on two continents, reappears in Free Country (Simon and Schuster, £19.99 hb). And this time, the web of intrigue, deception and downright plot complexity is double what it was in the first of the trilogy, Free Agent.

This first book established the central conceit - Dark is an MI:6 officer who was recruited by the NKVD just after the war but, in 1969, is on the verge of being outed as a 'double'. He had managed to save himself from being uncovered, but only after some high-energy derring do in Nigeria and facing almost certain death from a deadly jungle virus and a battle with Soviet agent with a tale to tell.

In this second book, the awkwardness of his situation becomes apparent and exposure seems imminent. We find our hero operating in London and Rome. (Question - can the reader emphasise with a "hero" character who kills his own boss? Of course ... who hasn't thought about murdering their boss during a particularly dull team meeting! More seriously, he has enough redeeming character traits and his unique situation creates an element of sympathy for someone who seems permanently trapped and on the run).

Following the murder of the Deputy Head of MI-6 at the London funeral for his predecessor - murdered by our protagonist - Dark looks into the links between that assassination. The bullet which killed his boss was clearly meant for him, and he suspect his Soviet masters have decided to bring his double career to a premature end. The more he delves into the plot, however, the more he uncovers the lengths to which other people will go to keep him quiet ... permanently.

What unfolds is a convoluted plot involving the Pope, biological warfare, ex public schoolboys with a torture fetish and a great number of chase sequences which, while breathlessly written, after about the sixth split-second escape can seem a tad implausible, which is my only real criticism of the book. But what makes the novel work is it's authenticity: this is not the sixties of flower power and the Beatles, but the Cold War at full pelt, communists apparently ready to seize power all over the continent and the British secret services seemingly still playing out elements of the last war. And Duns has done his research well - the many pages of historical notes at the end inform the reader of just how close he or she has just sailed to fact, rather than fiction.

Overall, this is a good read. Suspenseful, fast-paced, packed with detail and a believable main character. Judging by the fact Dark's coming back in a third thriller despite experiencing more scrapes in this novel than a multi-story car park pillar, our hero clearly possesses the espionage equivalent of a cat's nine lives. In this book, he uses up at least six.

The best spy trilogy I've ever read is Deighton's Game, Set and Match, and I see traces of that series and its main character in Free Country. Duns has set his readers up for what should be a gripping finale involving .... well, who knows what? But it'll be exciting, I know that.

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