For the past few days, I have been looking at Geoffrey Household’s book Rogue Male. It is a testament to the strength of the novel, that its impact can still be felt in contemporary spy novels. Today, I am going to look at Free Country, the second novel in Jeremy Duns’ Paul Dark trilogy – the first novel being Free Agent which was published last year. Free Country is a novel that proudly continues the ‘manhunt’ tradition in which Rogue Male excels.
As the story begins, MI6 operative Paul Dark, who in Free Agent was revealed to be a Soviet double agent, has been promoted to deputy chief of the service and is giving an eulogy at the funeral service for the previous chief. The irony is that it is in fact Dark who shot down his chief in the opening chapters of the previous novel.
During his speech, a sniper opens fire, but misses his intended target, Dark, and instead kills the new section chief. Dark pursues the sniper on foot, both men darting through the streets of London. This is where the comparison with Household’s Rogue Male begins. Both books open with an assassination attempt by a sniper. But Free Country is told from the perspective of the victim, where Rogue Male is told from the viewpoint of the assassin. It’s almost as if Duns has chosen to twist Rogue Male inside out. The comparison doesn’t end there. Allow me to share with you a few of paragraphs. These first few are from Free Country (used with the permission of the author).
Page 16 – after a dance on the platform and carriages between the ‘hunted’ and the protagonist on a train:
I followed, but then the sniper did an extraordinary thing – he let go of the boy and ran down the ramp at the end of the platform and into the tunnel. For a moment I thought it was suicide, but then I remembered there was some space next to the tracks for the Underground staff to use. As I reached the end of the platform, I could see he was running down it…
…up ahead I could see the tunnel curving away towards Farringdon, but he couldn’t possibly have reached the bend already. Was he hiding somewhere in the tunnel waiting for me?
These next few paragraphs are from Rogue Male.
Page 62-63 – after a dance on the platform and carriages between the ‘hunter’ and the protagonist on a train:
Beyond the Aldwych station there seemed to be some fifty yards of straight tube, and then a curve, its walls faintly visible in a gleam of grey light. Where the tunnel goes, or if it ends in an old shaft after the curve, I didn’t have time to find out.
Black Hat looked through the coach and saw that I wasn’t in it. The train pulled out, and when its roar had died away there was absolute silence. I hadn’t realised that Black Hat and I would be left alone a hundred feet under London. I lay flattened against a wall in the darkest section of the tunnel.
I can still hear them, and the sound of the steps and his scream and the hideous, because domestic, sound of sizzling. They echoed along that tunnel which leads lord knows where. A queer place for a soul to find itself adrift.
As you can plainly read, the scenarios are vastly different but drinking from the same well. Once again, it is almost as if Duns has reversed the scene – telling it from the view point of the assassin. But it is plain to see that Duns has an affection for Rogue Male and certain set-pieces within the story.
But back to Free Country: The Heads of the British Intelligence communities do not realise that Dark was the target for the assassin’s bullet, and believe it was a brazen attack by Soviet backed terror cell out of Italy called ‘Arte come Terrore’. Dark is sent to Rome to hunt down and kill the man responsible.
The story breathlessly twists and turns from one situation and once you believe that Dark has the situation in hand, Duns pulls another reversal and the story veers off in another unpredictable direction. After Rome, the story bounds to Sardinia, and then is derailed to Turin. There is also an insightful flashback to Istanbul, that not not only fleshes out a section a Dark’s history, but in turn also helps to move the story forward in the present (that present being 1969, when the story is set). There’s also a nice plot point that runs parallel to the defection of Burgess and Maclean.
In many ways, Free Country is a superior novel to Free Agent. I have to choose my words carefully here, because I don’t want to give the wrong impression about the first book in the trilogy, Free Agent. The fact is I thought Free Agent was very good, and the second half of the story rocketed along at tremendous pace. But Free Country, is a more consistent book. It starts at a cracking pace, and then never lets up, twisting and turning as it goes.
Duns, on his blog The Debrief, recently outlined how his writing had changed since writing Free Agent.
My methodology changed somewhat between writing my first and second novels: it became less structured. I wrote Free Agent in the evenings and weekends, handing in new chapters to a writing group as I went along. I wrote my second as a full-time author in a year. I was naturally worried that it wouldn’t be as good as my first, which took me seven years to write (albeit with a full-time job and no external deadline).
I would suggest being able to write Free Country, in what was virtually an uninterrupted block, as opposed to over seven years, where ideas and even points-of-view about life can change, has resulted in a noticeably more consistent novel. It is a more relaxed novel. Not relaxed in pace – no that’s cracking – but in Duns’ story telling. He seems more comfortable with the tale he is telling and the characters who inhabit it – and is not afraid to throw in a few subtle asides alluding to the pedigree of his story – whether that be a nod in the direction of Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male – or references to a lucky chap, who was able to escape the English winter, by traipsing to Jamaica every year in May (Remind you of anyone?). These asides don’t intrude on the story, they are simply nuggets for the knowledgeable, and simply show how comfortable Duns is as he applies himself to his craft.
In closing, I’d recommend Free Country to all fans of fast paced thriller fiction. I must point out though, that there is quite a heavy back-story carried over from Free Agent, so I would suggest that you don’t launch into Free Country until you have read the first book – that done, then it’s full steam ahead. Once again, Jeremy Duns serves up a cracking espionage novel that can be enjoyed by both hardened spy novel fans, and those who are seeking a solid fast paced thriller.