Weeks ago, I found this book synopsis in my e-mail inbox:
In July 1945, MI6 agent Paul Dark took part in a clandestine mission to hunt down and execute Nazi war criminals. He will discover that everything he understood about that mission, about its consequences, and about the woman he once loved, has been built on false foundations.That note was alerting me to the publication of Free Agent, by Jeremy Duns (shown above), an espionage novel that’s due out today in British bookstores and is scheduled for publication in the States in late June. The work has already won no small amount of pre-publication acclaim from the likes of William Boyd, Charles Cumming, David Morrell, and Jeff Abbott. If you are interested, you can read the novel’s first chapter here.
Now it’s 1969, and a KGB colonel has walked into the British High Commission in Lagos, Nigeria, and announced he wants to defect. His credentials as a defector are good: he has information indicating that there is yet another double agent within MI6, which would be a devastating blow to an organization still coming to terms with its betrayal by Kim Philby and the rest of the Cambridge Ring.
Dark has largely been above suspicion during MI6’s years of self-recrimination--but this time he’s in the frame. For some it would be flight or fight time. But when your arrest may be only moments away, sometimes the only option is flight AND flight ... whatever the consequences.
According to his bio, Duns was reared principally in Africa and Asia, read English at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, and eventually became a journalist, publishing in the London Times, The Guardian, and assorted other UK periodicals. Free Agent is his first novel. He brings a well-researched clarity to the real world back story that enriches his fiction, and matches it with a true fan’s affection for the tropes of the espionage genre.
I had the chance recently to address a few questions to Duns on behalf of The Rap Sheet. We talked about his efforts to re-create the 1940s and ’60s in Free Agent, his spy-novel influences, and how he conceived this debut book as part of a trilogy.
Gordon Harries: Jeremy, the period novel is a notoriously research-intensive beast. What possessed you to focus on two historical strands, and why 1945 and 1969 respectively?
Jeremy Duns: I did sometimes wonder that myself! I’ve been a fan of spy novels for years, but I’m most drawn to those set during the Cold War, which I think was a fascinating period. When the [Berlin] Wall fell a lot of people said the spy novel was dead, but I didn’t see why--not only would there be new arenas of espionage to tell stories about, as of course there have been, but the march of time (and declassified files) would also mean new aspects of the Cold War would be revealed. In the ’60s and ’70s, thriller writers like Alistair MacLean and Jack Higgins set their books during the Second World War, so it struck me that perhaps I could revisit the Cold War from a fresh perspective, from what we know of it now. Once I had decided to set it during the Biafran War, I had to figure out precisely when. I spent a while researching 1967, in fact, before discovering a particular event that took place in 1969 that I wanted to build my plot around. The chapter in 1945 came about because I wanted to show how Paul Dark finds himself in the position he is in at the start of the novel, and I felt that it was probably initiated when he was an idealistic and confused young man. I was also interested in the way the Soviets went from being our allies in the war to our enemies straight after it--that was something I thought Soviet intelligence might have exploited.
GH: I think that the non-genre reader has a tendency to regard the espionage novel as a somewhat insular narrative wherein the protagonists are removed from the culture at large. (For example, in John le Carré’s early works, the only culture experienced tends to be “high culture.”) By contrast, Paul Dark is very much of his time and place. Was this an attempt to add a “social history” component (with references to Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, the culture of paranoia enabled by the Cambridge Five, and of course the Biafran War) to the novel, or simply an indication that your models were other than those found in Le Carré’s tales?
JD: I love John le Carré’s work, but I was probably more influenced by Len Deighton: a guidebook to London that he edited in the late ’60s was very helpful for contemporary details. I also enjoy a lot of rather obscure spy thrillers from the ’60s like James Leasor’s Jason Love and Adam Diment’s Philip McAlpine series, and they are filled with this sort of stuff. I did want to get across something of the atmosphere of the time--it would seem a shame to write a spy thriller set in the ’60s and not!
GH: Given that Free Agent is set in the period when the ’60s ebbed into the ’70s, do you think the fact that you currently live at a remove--in Sweden--aided you in period re-creation? I was struck by the fact that, for all of the pop-cultural baggage the ’60s possess, the narrative voice of your story is so unsentimental.
JD: Well, I was living in Belgium while I wrote most of it, in fact, but that’s also at a remove from Britain, of course. I’m not sure if it helped me in re-creating the period so much, because it was sometimes harder to find out certain things. Very early on I considered setting the book in the Congo, and if I had done that the research side of things would probably have been a lot easier, because the second-hand bookshops of Brussels are swimming in first-hand material from that time: memoirs and guidebooks and bizarre technical documents. I would sometimes come across them and feel a bit forlorn! But I grew up as an expatriate, and after university in England I became one again. That has certainly given me a different perspective on “home,” and part of what I want to do with my trilogy is look at Britain’s place in the world in the Cold War, perhaps with a little less sentimentality than was done at the time.
GH: It’s good that you brought up the fact that Free Agent is being marketed as the start of a trilogy (in fact, there’s even a “Paul Dark will return in …” notation at the end of the novel, the way there used to be at the close of James Bond movies). Was it always conceived as such? And to what extent are all three of the novels intended to be informed by one another?
JD: I’m glad you spotted that tribute to the early Bond films. Yes, I conceived it as a trilogy. I’ve just finished writing Free Country, which is set in Italy and begins three days after the end of Free Agent. The third book will be called Free World, and I’m researching it now. The three novels tell one complete story, but will also, I hope, be readable as standalones …
GH: In your interview with the blog Permission to Kill, you mentioned having used Derek Marlowe’s A Dandy in Aspic, Graham Greene’s The Human Factor, and the Jason Bourne movies as case studies. In what ways did they help to inform your story? I’m particularly interested in the influence of the Bourne films, I suppose, considering your earlier comment about giving the Cold War “a fresh perspective.”
JD: I read A Dandy in Aspic a long time ago, and while it has its flaws I think the premise is brilliant: a British diplomat is sent by MI6 to Berlin to kill a notorious Soviet assassin-- but the diplomat is that assassin. Reading that and The Human Factor had me wondering why there weren’t more spy novels in which the double agent was the protagonist, because there seemed to be so much inbuilt suspense there. There’s one obvious reason for that: it’s very hard to make readers care for a traitor.
The Bourne films didn’t inform Free Agent’s plot, but I felt that they had a very similar tone to Cold War thrillers. If you read, say, the Quiller novels by Adam Hall (aka Elleston Trevor), you’ll find a lot of action that seems straight out of a Bourne film. But what I was interested in with them was that they are extremely exciting but also very well-scripted stories. And although Bourne isn’t a traitor, he is a conflicted hero, but you root for him nonetheless. I was looking at a lot of different things, in fact, and they all seemed to coalesce and point to this story.
GH: Obviously, when writing about any kind of spy, identity politics are going to play a role. To what extent is this novel meant as a critique of Dark’s character? I was struck by how, even though Free Agent employs first-person narration, the reader doesn’t necessarily feel close to Dark.
JD: Well, he’s not a hero, but I don’t think he’s quite an anti-hero, either. I don’t necessarily want you to like him, or feel close to him for that matter, but I wanted readers to be compelled to follow him. This is a character who, in some ways, seems a good man--or at least someone who wants to be a good man. But he’s also totally ruthless. I didn’t want to sugar-coat what it would mean to be in his shoes, and as the trilogy progresses you find out just what the last 24 years have meant in terms of the human damage. But I also wanted to get away from simply demonizing him--he’s made a horrendous mistake and he knows it. I hope that he’s believable, and that readers will be interested in how he develops.
GH: On the subject of the damage the past inflicts upon the present, to what extent did you want to write about inherited conflict? Dark isn’t entirely responsible for his predicament, nor was 1969 the start of the Cold War …
JD: You asked earlier why I chose to set part of the novel in 1945. It’s hard to date the beginning of the Cold War, of course--some would say it predates the Second World War. I think for Britain, you could date it to Operation Unthinkable, which was a report by the Joint Planning Staff on [Prime Minister Winston] Churchill’s instructions for a war against the USSR--it was drawn up in May 1945. The plan never went ahead, of course. So yes, by having Dark Senior pull his son into hunting war criminals just as the hot war turned cold, I want to show how difficult it was to choose a “right” side at that point in time. Paul Dark chooses the wrong side, unfortunately, or has the wrong side chosen for him. Two decades later, as the Soviet Union and Britain are battling to gain a foothold in Africa, the events of 1945 return to haunt him.
GH: Finally, you obviously read in-genre. Which novelists do you gravitate towards?
JD: I mostly read non-fiction now, but I tend to go for spy novels with a strong element of suspense. I love the greats like [Eric] Ambler, Greene, Deighton, and le Carré, but I think there were a lot of brilliant writers who got left behind a bit, some of whom I’ve mentioned already, like Adam Hall. I think Joseph Hone was one of the great spy novelists of the 20th century, but sadly very few know of him now. His prose was beautiful, but he combined it with tremendously exciting plots. Outside the spy genre, my favorite novelist is probably Lawrence Durrell, although he did dip his toe into espionage every now and again. I can’t read too much of him now, though: he’s so good that I start thinking about giving up!