Well, well. How much did I enjoy this?
Let’s see: Spies. The Second World War. Spies. The Cold War. Spies. The 1960’s. Spies. Yup! Everything set fair for me to enjoy this one.
And I did.
If I might give you some advice based on my reading of this one; have a good grip on this book right from the start.
For, after just a few pages, there I am, staring blankly at the page I just read, blinking, with my jaw bouncing back up off floor. And I’m wondering; ‘The hell happened there?! Did he just…? But I thought…? Did that really…’
‘Cat, meet pigeons’ indeed. And you’re only 13 pages in. Ha! Excellent stuff.
Yes, you know you’re in unchartered enjoyment territory when a book throws a huge great spanner in your works, even before you’ve got the works in gear.
It wouldn’t be easy describing the plot without giving away the start. Which is essential for what follows. However, the plot summary on the back of the book does do an excellent job of sidestepping the shock at the start. It gives nothing away, while giving a reasonably full synopsis of the story. I can’t do better, so here’s what my copy of the paperback says;
“British agent Paul Dark has had a stellar career – until now. A Soviet defector has credible information that there is a double agent within MI6, and Dark finds himself in the frame. Arrest could be only moments away. Worse, he has discovered that everything he has believed in for the last twenty-four years – the very purpose that drives him – has been built on a lie. Now he wants answers, no matter what he has to do to get them.”
Free Agent is a satisfyingly well-plotted story that has its roots in the confusion and panic in Germany – and Europe in general – after the end of the Second World War. And of course the start of the Cold War. New ideologies are forming, becoming entrenched and making both sides vulnerable. To both sides. The main story takes place in 1969. Beginning in England, it then takes us out to Nigeria, during its civil war with those trying to break away and form a new country; Biafra. Here, the conflict is on the surface a civil war involving the potential breakaway of the Biafran province, but it is (naturally) being used as a playing field for the Eastern and Western colonial powers – old and new – to do more than just rattle their sabres. I loved the description the book quotes as being from a Swahili saying, that ‘when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.’
The book for me brought back many interesting youthful memories – and some shocking images. And, I’m ashamed to admit, some rather tasteless ‘jokes’. We didn’t know better. I remember the trauma of the Biafran conflict, the harrowing images and the British attempts at salvaging (for the British) a rapidly deteriorating situation (I also realised I remember Harold Wilson’s ‘warship diplomacy’, in trying to solve/end the Rhodesian ‘problem’ as well). In fact, there were many times during reading the reading of Free Agent where I had to pause and let up some of my own memories bubble up, memories that Free Agent reminded me I’d forgotten were there.
The story moves at a good pace, though never too fast to be trivial. There are twists and turns, but thanks to a well-constructed and believable plot, they always feel natural and never forced. There are also interesting ideas and themes that are given time to develop and come to fruition – while always retaining the book’s urgency and the hero’s need for solving his own personal issues, in what becomes a rather hectic race against time. In Paul Dark, I think Jeremy Duns has created a very interesting, complex character. With Dark, what you see isn’t always what you get and I don’t think I’m giving too much away if I say that he is a character I thought I shouldn’t really sympathize with, but did. And a character I was and am, interested in finding out more about. More about his motivations, his past, his present and hopefully his future – however long that future might be.
I thoroughly enjoyed this story and look forward to reading more about Paul Dark. And Jeremy Duns is a really interesting Tweeter too – as of course befits a fellow Englishman now sensible enough to be living in Scandinavia!
*I would like to point out that the Goodreads language description for this paperback version, says ‘Croation’. This is decidedly not the case!