Free Agent

Written by Jeremy Duns

Published by Simon & Schuster 2009

Free Agent is the first in Jeremy Duns’ planned trilogy of novels featuring Paul Dark. Free Agent is to be followed be Free Country and then Free World. And I must say this novel gets the series off to a flying start. The first jolt comes within the opening pages after you’ve been lulled into a false sense of security. It’s the obligatory briefing scene, where the secret agent receives his mission instructions from his superior. Often in this type of scene in other spy books, you get the crusty old handler tossing off a few barbs at his petulant underling – but you know deep down there is almost a father and son relationship going on. Well, Free Agent continues that time honoured tradition but then turns it on its head when Dark pulls a Luger pistol and shoots his chief right between the eyes.Whoa! Where do you go from here!

The story then flashes back to the aftermath of the Second World War, and Dark is involved in an operation to track down Nazi war criminals. It is here, where the seeds of Dark’s traitorous actions are sown, and slowly a picture of the man starts to emerge. Is Dark a villain? Well that’s hard to answer. He has just shot his chief, so the short answer is yes. But as you read the book, Dark never really seems like a villain. You ride along with the character, through his numerous scrapes – from out of the frying pan and into the fire, as it were, but you still keep hoping he’ll muddle his way through. Duns has walked a fine literary tightrope, creating a character who it would have been easy to despise – and as such create little sympathy or interest from the reader. The fact that Duns has been able to create a universe where the reader actually follows with interest – and dare I say it – cheers for the villain is quite an impressive feat.

As the story progresses to Nigeria, Duns also proves adept at painting an atmospheric picture. The heat, mosquitoes and the sweat are almost palpable – from the time Dark hits the tarmac in Lagos, through being captured by drug addled Biafran soldiers, till he finally reaches his finally destination this is one hot sweaty book.

Without giving away too much of the plot, and spoiling the story, some of my favourite passages are a gun battle and car chase through the streets of Lagos – yeah, I am a sucker for a good action sequence – and the passage where, well actually it’s the last one hundred pages of the book. Up until this point the book has been good, but here it lifts up a notch. From the point where Dark catches a plane flight to Udi, until the last pages of the book where the last few final twists are revealed, I dare anyone to put down this book while reading.

Jeremy Duns is no stranger to the world of spy fiction. You can read his articles about past masters of the spy genre in The Sunday Times or listen to his opinion on Len Deighton on BBC4 radio. The problem with this – and I can be guilty of this too – is that it is easy to suggest that Duns’ writing (or certain passages) mimics those of the masters of the spy genre. I have already read comparisons of Duns to LeCarre and Deighton – and while I am sure Duns would be very pleased to see his name grouped in such exclusive company, I think it undermines his achievement as a writer. This is not a ‘cut and paste’ book. Sure, people who have read a great many spy books will be able to spot certain references – maybe even homages – to the past, but Free Agent is a cohesive piece of story telling that stands on its own.

Another side effect of Duns’ knowledge and reputation in the field of spy-lit, is that many people seem to expect that Free Agent is a ‘hard-core’ novel of espionage. It is not – it is a rattling good thriller that just happens to be set in the world of espionage. Is there a difference? Yes there is. Hard core spy novels attempt to demystify the world of espionage. They strip away the gloss and show spying as a dirty business. Whereas in a thriller, a series of events happen that build upon each other – they build and build until they reach (hopefully) a shattering climax. The reader gets breathlessly propelled through the story. Free Agent belongs to that latter tradition. In Free Agent you will not find any long-winded passages detailing ‘tradecraft’, and due to the book being set in the sixties, you will not find any tiresome techno-babble about weapons and machinery. This is a story that drags you along at breakneck pace.

It’s that last point that I believe is the most salient. As a reviewer, I am a guy who writes about spy films and books, and so, of course I am going to love Duns’ book. But because I believe that Free Agent is a good thriller, rather than an espionage book, I would suggest that this book has broad appeal and can be picked up and enjoyed by everyone – you don’t have to be a spy geek like me to enjoy this book. When I interviewed Duns last months, he remarked:

‘I write for as broad an audience as I can. I want people who don’t usually read thrillers to read my work, and hope that pretty much anyone over the age of fourteen or so could enjoy Free Agent.’

When I interviewed Jeremy, I hadn’t read his book, and his comment was sort of lost on me. As an author, of course you want everyone to read your book, and would say something to that effect. But in fact, he has delivered what he said – a thriller for people who don’t usually read thrillers. I would say that he has succeeded admirably.

Free Agent is released in the United States this week.

To read my interview with Free Agent author, Jeremy Duns, click here.

To order Free Agent from Amazon, click here.

Jeremy’s website is:
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