Spy Out the Land by Jeremy Duns

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Reviewed by Rob Spence

Don’t read this book. Don’t, that is, unless you have read Jeremy Duns’s previous three Paul Dark spy thrillers, because this continues the story from where we left off at the end of Moscow Option. Duns very deftly sketches in enough detail in this episode to enable the new reader to understand how his protagonist has arrived at this particular point in his life, but I would still recommend starting at the beginning of the sequence to enjoy the full Dark experience.

So, assuming that my reader is clued up on the previous exploits of Dark, let me say from the outset that this will not disappoint fans of the series. At the end of the last novel, Dark had been left for dead, and here he has reinvented himself as a Swedish family man in a Stockholm apartment. It is 1975, six years after the events of the last novel.  We know about Dark’s secrets, but it turns out that his partner has a shady past too, which is about to catch up with her in an explosive way. That’s the cue for Dark to go into his familiar all-action mode, and what follows is an exhilarating chase that takes in remote rural Finland, Brussels, Kuala Lumpur and Rhodesia, building to a brilliantly imagined climax at Victoria Falls.

Readers of Duns will be familiar with the meticulous research that goes into each of his books, and this one follows that pattern. Duns provides an extensive list of references, including a series of declassified files, to support his fictional story. The central political event in the novel is the historic summit meeting between Ian Smith’s Rhodesian government and representatives of the black nationalist movements that took place in August 1975. Duns uses this as the hook on which to hang his tale of deception, treason and covert operations across three continents. As usual, Duns develops his tale around a whole series of often apparently unrelated historic events that form a backdrop to the fictional action, and lend it credibility.  Once again, the shadowy presence of real Cold War figures such as Kim Philby and George Blake add authenticity to the narrative.

One major change from Duns’s previous practice is that this is written in the third person, though very much from Dark’s perspective, so the effect is not too dissimilar from the first-person narrative of the other three books. What certainly hasn’t changed is the cracking pace at which the story is driven by Duns’s spare, stripped-down prose. There’s no elaboration, nothing that doesn’t drive the plot forward, and this makes the narrative a really engaging one for the reader. The emphasis on plot doesn’t mean that we miss out on local colour, but those details are presented briefly in laconic, down-to-earth fashion, giving us just enough information to visualise the scene as it unfolds. And that scene is a rapidly changing one: a park in Stockholm, MI5 headquarters in London, a Finnish island, GRU headquarters in Moscow, a rundown street in Brussels, a military barracks in the Rhodesian outback… The reader is left breathless by the twists and turns of a plot that throws up surprise after surprise, including its conclusion.

Dark remains the same tormented character we have encountered before, a man whose whole life (he is now fifty) has been shaped by events at the end of the war, when he was duped into becoming a spy. This novel also features some characters from earlier in the series, particularly Geoffrey Manning, the bumbling former head of station in Lagos, who is now reinvented as a campaigner for human rights in Africa. One intriguing new character is Rachel Gold, who is the Service’s expert on Paul Dark, and who proves to be as determined and resourceful as he in her pursuit of him, in the course of which she discovers some devastating information that exposes corruption at the heart of the British establishment. If there is another book in the series – and I hope and trust there will be – it will be interesting to see her character develop.

In Spy Out the Land, Jeremy Duns has once again produced a thriller that lives up to its name. I read it in one sitting, which means that I can use with honesty the oldest cliché in the reviewer’s book: unputdownable.

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Rob Spence blogs on books, music and anything else that appeals to him at Dr Rob Spence.

Jeremy Duns, Spy Out the Land (Simon & Schuster, 2016). 9780857209719, 439pp., paperback.

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