Spy Out the Land by Jeremy Duns

3 Mins read

It might sound strange for a reviewer to describe rough, tough, bloodthirsty crime thrillers as their comfort zone, but it’s good to step away from the genre you know and love occasionally.

Welcome to the world of spies, double agents, double-crossing and danger, evoked in astounding detail by an author whose work has been lauded by the likes of William Boyd, no less. The story begins in 1969, when cold-blooded murder is committed on a remote Finnish island. Three people are shot, one spirited away by the killers, the other two left to the ravages of nature. But a nearby lighthouse keeper who comes to investigate finds signs of life in the male target, and he and his wife set about nursing the stranger back to health.

Back in Moscow, the would-be assassins claim their three kills, not realising that there’s a flaw in their mathematics. In London, the grapevine confirms the death of fugitive former British agent Paul Dark, a man at the top of the Secret Service wanted list because of his double-agent activities benefitting the Soviets. Intelligence analyst Rachel Gold, known in the business as the ‘crypto queen’ has her doubts, but as no one else can be bothered with her theories she keeps her thoughts to herself.

Before we leave the 1960s the action moves to Malaysia, where Rachel is sent to bring back another suspected double agent. When he is killed on her watch, her burgeoning career looks destined for the doldrums.

Fast-forward to 1975 Stockholm, where a quiet living man, his wife and young son are settled into a familiar routine that appears to suit them all. But Erik and Claire are both living a lie and that lie extends to what they’ve revealed to each other. Then Claire and young Ben are kidnapped and meek and mild Erik reveals his darker side. Yes, he’s Paul Dark, and he’ll stop at nothing until his family is reunited once again.

If this book possessed a passport, the pages would be looking pretty tattered by now, because the story will take you to another continent before things really get going. 1975 is a time of turbulence in Africa and a summit has been arranged between the Rhodesian government and various nationalist leaders, due to take place in a railway dining car in the middle of the Victoria Falls bridge – a fine bit of political spin-doctoring that serves to disguise the battles going on behind the scenes. Matthew Caramba, a key player in the battle for majority rule in Rhodesia is refusing to attend. Then something happens to change his mind – remember that kidnapping in Sweden?

Sounds complicated? Believe me, you need your wits about you to keep on top of the myriad story threads. This is a book that has political intrigue running through it like a stick of Blackpool rock and at times I found myself struggling with the minutiae of who was cheating on whom, and why.

The author has done a mountainous amount of research (as is evidenced by a five-page bibliography) and is keen to show off his knowledge wherever possible. Politically-savvy readers who are familiar with the turbulent history of the 1960s and 70s are sure to lap it all up, but I found myself disengaging when paragraph after paragraph of salient facts and figures threatened to overwhelm both me and the narrative flow.

As a newcomer to the series I also felt a little late to the party at times and was never really sure whether Dark was a goody or baddie. He’s an enigmatic leading man though, and he and Rachel Gold were the stand-out characters in novel that is jam-packed full of cast members.

Fans of Frederick Forsyth and the aforementioned William Boyd will enjoy this journey and I’m sure readers already converted to the Paul Dark series will delight in learning more about their hero. However, if you’re looking for an introduction to Duns and Dark, probably best to start with Free Agent (first in the series) and work your way through to this latest book.

Simon & Schuster

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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