Last year Tanner from the Double-O Section wrote a fantastic review of a book called Dead Spy Running, written by Jon Stock. In that review, Tanner suggested that spy novel fans could do a lot worse than seek the story out. As he is one of the knowledgeable spy reviewers out in the blogosphere, and his opinion I greatly respect, I did just that.
I enjoyed the book, and as Tanner suggested, despite the hoopla and hype written on the cover, Dead Spy Running is not the saviour of spy fiction. It is, however, a damn fine piece of airport fiction. And in a couple of areas, Stock’s novel really shines.
Firstly, there are many spy novels, that serve up heart pounding action, excitement and adventure. And I love those. But what I have found to be less common – or at least less successful – in spy novels, is the talking head, dirty back room politics, type of spy story. I think one of the reasons that this style of story is less prevalent, is that it is incredibly difficult to do well, and keep entertaining. But this is truly John Stock’s strong point. The bickering between MI-6, MI-5 and the American CIA is the highlight of the novel, and in some places I was actually distracted by the action sequences, which almost seemed shoe-horned into the story (especially in the back half). It is rare when a story makes this type of desk-bound spy work just as interesting, and exciting, as the globe trotting adventures of a master spy.
There is one passage that delighted me no end, and that was when the head of MI-6, Marcus Fielding, while in a meeting with the divisional head of the CIA, Alan Carter, chooses to lie on the floor of his office due to back pain. This, of course, alters the whole dynamic of the conversation, and throws his American counterpart slightly off balance. It can be seen as another bit of gamesmenship between the two men, reflecting the inter agency rivalry. To some people, this may have read incredibly contrived and stilted. For me however, as I have a friend who has had severe back pain for nine months and can’t sit in a chair for long periods of time, and routinely lies on the floor, this passage, along with being slightly humourous, also rang true. That’s what people do. And yes, it is very strange talking to someone lying down like that.
But it is not all talk, talk, talk. Stock doesn’t hold back on the action sequences. The opening, which takes place during the London Marathon, is action packed, gripping, and well written. It will capture most readers who take the time to read the book, instantly. It certainly hooked me. But as I have alluded to, as good as the opening is, it is not truly indicative of the best that this labyrinthine story has in store.
That story concerns covert operative, Daniel Marchant, who is the son of disgraced, and now deceased, head of MI-6. The backlash and suspicion from Marchant Snr’s dismissal and death has flowed back on to his son, who is on suspension, as the story opens. His only ally appears to be a fellow agent named Leila who was inducted into the service at the same time as Marchant.
Marchant and Leila, while not quite being fitness fanatics, are athletic, and decide to participate in the annual London Marathon. Along with thousands of others, they pound the city streets at a steady pace. As the race progresses, Marchant notices an Indian, who looks distressed and frightened, running a few steps behind the US ambassador. With thousands competing in the race, that in itself may not have been an issue, but he also has wrapped around his waist, a rather cumbersome belt, which Marchant hypothesizes may contain explosives. He decides to find out, and jogs up beside the man, and begins a conversation. He quickly ascertains he is right. The runner is a suicide bomber (who is actually not that keen to die), and indeed – if you’ll forgive the spoiler – the belt is full of explosive.
With help from Leila, Marchant manages to thwart the assassination attempt. Having just saved the life of the US ambassador, you would expect him to be feted as a hero. But instead he is treated as a conspirator in the attempted assassination, and is spirited by the Americans to Poland for questioning. For that, read torture!
After Marchant is extricated from that little situation, with a little discreet aid from Marcus Fielding, he finds himself on the run, and the only man who appears to be able to clear his name, is a fanatical terrorist named Salim Dhar, who has a vendetta against the Americans. Dhar is suspected of being Marchant’s co-conspirator in the assassination attempt. To track Dhar down, Marchant travels to India.
If you think things couldn’t get worse for Marchant, then you’d be dead wrong. From the moment he arrives in India, he is in the line of fire. And each incident Marchant finds himself involved in, inevitably ends up causing conflict between the disparate intelligence agencies, with only Fielding giving Marchant the slightest chance of proving his innocence.
Dead Spy Running is certainly a page turner, and balances the two sides of espionage, field work, and desk bound strategy and politics very well. I’d be happy to immerse myself in Daniel Marchant’s next adventure, Games Traitors Play.