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Once A Spy: A Novel
Once A Spy: A Novel
Keith Thomson
Doubleday, 2010
336 pp., 25.95

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Stranger in a Strange Land: John Wilson

Once a Spy

Fugitive occasional pieces by interesting writers sometimes turn out to be treasures. Such is the case with Eric Ambler's introduction to the 1990 Mysterious Press reissue of his first novel, The Dark Frontier (1936). Ambler explains that, amid "the welter of impulses" that pushed him to write the book, "the wish to parody was, at first, central. I intended to make fun of the old secret service adventure thriller as written by E. Phillips Oppenheim, John Buchan, Dornford Yates and their cruder imitators; and I meant to do it by placing some of their antique fantasies in the context of a contemporary reality. For plot purposes, the reality I thought I needed was one of those … dark conspiracies of evil men … that will succeed unless our hero can arrive in the nick of time to foil the wicked in their devilish moment of near triumph. The development of an atomic bomb in a small Balkan state ruled by a corrupt Fascist-style oligarchy was likely, I thought, to yield an interesting crop of villains."

But the book did not proceed according to plan. What started as a parody mutated to become "a thriller with a difference." In part, Ambler suggests, this was because parody requires a sharply limited scale of operations. Also, he reflects, if he was determined "to fool with matters that should be taken seriously"—the threat posed by the atomic bomb, though not "immediately present" in the mid-1930s, was nothing to be trifled with—perhaps he would have been better off to "discard the idea of parody" altogether. And finally, he acknowledges, "one of the hidden dangers of parody is that one may find oneself actually enjoying the process of writing 'in the manner of ' some excruciatingly awful stylists."

Flash forward three-quarters of a century from the publication of The Dark Frontier to the appearance of Keith Thomson's first novel, Once a Spy. (If you are a regular reader of fiction—many subscribers to Books & Culture are not—and if, in particular, you read spy fiction, crime fiction, thrillers, and such, and, further, if you are not allergic to the fusion of these genres with comedy, you should set this column aside for the time being and locate a copy of Thomson's book. Do come back later.) Note that as long ago as 1935 (when Ambler was writing The Dark Frontier), there was already a substantial body of spy fiction, sufficiently established to be the target of parody. Then came World War II, followed by the Cold War, generating vast quantities of the stuff. When the Cold War ended, we were told that the imaginative energy-source for the genre had been shut down—and some people appeared to be serious when claiming this. But well before 9/11 jolted us into noticing another war in progress, spy fiction was doing a booming business, much of it dreck, as always, and a lot of it middling, but also including books so good that you know you'll be re-reading them even before you have finished the first time. And then there are the movies and the TV shows (at the moment, espionage—taken with varying degrees of seriousness—appears to be claiming more TV time than ever before).

Once a Spy has a premise so catchy that a movie version is a foregone conclusion. Drummond Clark is a 64-year-old spy. His cover? Even better than those Russian sleeper agents managed: "He'd worked in sales at a middling appliance manufacturer for thirty years." His son, Charlie, from whom he is more or less estranged, believes that Drummond's frequent absences were related to that job. And when Charlie was four years old, his mother—so he has always been told—died in an accident.

Okay, so Drummond's cover suggests a note of levity bordering on parody, but what's the hook? He has Alzheimer's. Most of the time he's in a haze of confusion, but now and then he snaps into awareness—and into action. At such times he is transformed from a shambling shell of a man into an omnicompetent hero: shrewd, resourceful, a deadly shot (think Jason Bourne when he's 64). We witness these episodes through Charlie's eyes, as he begins to understand that he has never really known his dad. From early on in the book and right through its conclusion—which points toward the next installment, Twice a Spy, scheduled for publication in March 2011—Charlie and his father are on the run, trying to elude relentless pursuers, and in this respect, again with a hint of parody, Thomson is following the time-honored conventions whereby an "ordinary" character (Charlie) finds himself willy-nilly caught up in deadly intrigue. His very sense of reality—beginning with his family history—is upended. And even as Thomson is deploying familiar tropes of spy fiction with comic zest, he is also telling a story of reconciliation between father and son—a bit sappy, some readers will judge, while others will be touched.

Thomson's epigraph, quoting Jefferson—"The price of liberty is eternal vigilance"—comes with a twist, like much else in this clever book. If you have been reading spy fiction lately, or simply reading The New York Times, you won't be surprised to learn that the über-villain in this story is a highly placed and ruthless figure within the byzantine world of American intelligence agencies, who argues that it is necessary to eliminate Drummond (and Charlie, and anyone else who by virtue of connection with them, however incidental, seems to pose a "threat" to national security) before, addled by his disease, Drummond gives away to our enemies the secrets to a project intended to reduce the chances of nuclear proliferation. In short, the bad guy is the one who, claiming to defend America, actually violates our highest ideals, just like those wicked people who preside over the detainment facility at Guantànamo Bay. (But does this villain really believe his own rhetoric, or does he merely rely on it to press others to do his bidding? That's not entirely clear—not to me, at any rate.)

A warning to linguistically fastidious readers (Ambler was one): this book may not be your cup of tea. In some respects it is superbly told—the pace of the narrative is masterful, not to mention Thomson's delicious sense of the absurd—but the writing is often slipshod. On p. 12, a character has a migraine, "like a railroad spike through the base of her skull." On p. 17, a Russian gangster is wearing "a thick gold chain and gold cross the size of a railroad spike." There are far too many phrases that seem to have been generated by indiscriminate use of a thesaurus. And words are simply misused, sometimes with inadvertently comic effect: "the loudest sound was the clicking tread of a rat." Who knew rats even had a tread?

I'm assuming that Thomson worked hard on the tech stuff, which sounds entirely plausible to me, but I am too ignorant to say more than that. I did stumble early on, though, when a very sympathetic character tells Charlie that "Alzheimer's sufferers your father's age are a rarity …. Those his age already exhibiting his range of symptoms are statistically nonexistent." This isn't true, and at first I assumed it was a gaffe on Thomson's part. Later, when this charming "social worker" was revealed to be a spy from yet another American agency (one moreover who comes to the rescue of Drummond and Charlie, at her own peril), I wondered if her mistake was a clue that she wasn't a social worker after all (and that she hadn't had sufficient time to work up the role). You can't be sure with Thomson. He's a tricky fellow, which is a good quality for a writer of spy fiction.

Entertainment and escape apart (and certainly those are the principal attractions), it's worth reading books like this to see how they carry on the conversation about liberty and government and threats to freedom, here and elsewhere in the world. (Tell me again: Who is it exactly that suffers from a pervasive mistrust of "government"?) Good spy fiction stimulates thought about such matters and lets us know what others are thinking. Which reminds me that it's about time for a re-reading of Eric Ambler.

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