Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Several months ago, the Washington Post reviewed Spycatcher, by Matthew Dunn. (Review here)
Thriller Guy also reviewed the book, favorably, and also interviewed Dunn. The author is a veteran of Britain's intelligence agency MI6, having led more than 70 missions around the world. He is now retired and living in London. Faithful readers of this blog will know TG's opinion of “insiders” who turn to thriller writing in their retirement: he doesn't like them, as a rule. They usually seem primarily motivated by the possibility of making vast sums of money off their expertise, and driven by the thinking, hey, what's so hard about writing a thriller anyway? The results are usually clunky at best, and generally show the authors have no working knowledge of the rules and regulations of writing a thriller. TG says to hell with these opportunists, and they usually get a bad review.

But Dunn is different. Spycatcher is a solid debut. TG has a question for you, gentle blog readers, but it will come at the end of this piece, so hang in with TG here.

Dunn's MI6 agent, Will Cochrane, code name Spartan, is in New York City on a mission involving an Iranian intelligence source. The mission goes bad, as these things are wont to do, and Will is shot a number of times. After a brief (very brief) stay in a secret hospital, he is assigned a new operation whose goal is to find the mastermind leader of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, known as Meggido, who is planning a massive terrorist attack. Will tracks down Lana Beseisu, a freelance journalist now living in Paris and rumored to be the one-time lover of the terrorist leader. Will and Lana form an alliance and an instant attraction, though Will knows he has to keep his hands off this beauty until the mission is successful. When Will learns that the Iranian terrorist was responsible for the death of his own father, revenge adds impetuous to the search. The stage is set for the inevitable clash between the super terrorist and the super agent.

It's not exactly a novel plot as these things go, but Dunn's book is redeemed by his knowledge of the spy world and the dark arts therein. The writing is good, the pace assured and the structure hews to the standard rules of the genre. The man seems to have done his homework and even to have read within the genre. This is good, honest craftsmanship and TG always enjoys seeing someone new whose first book promises more good things to come. If TG has a quibble with the book, and TG always has a quibble, Dunn struggles a bit with the romance between Will and Lana, making Will too susceptible to Lana's charms, too juvenile in general for a guy who is supposed to be this hard core. This is a common mistake in many thrillers and TG thinks this happens because the authors want to show that their heroes are “human.” Bullshit, heroes aren't supposed to be human and vulnerable. Here's TG's advice to all thriller writers: if you've simply got to have a romance, make it low key, or better yet, don't do it at all. It's a cliché the way most of you are handling it, at worst laughable and at best, usually only a bit less laughable.

But the Washington Post had another beef, which raises the question TG wishes to pose to his blog readers. Here's an excerpt from the Post review...

“But while building this compelling storyline, Dunn falls into some unnecessary exaggeration. Not just a special agent, Cochrane has to be a super agent — the sole member of a top-secret Spartan program. As one handler tells him: “You are the ultimate killer of killers, the man who terrifies his enemies and allies, the man who can start wars and end them, the man who is the West’s deadliest and most secret weapon.” Similarly hyperbolic, Megiddo’s plot promises “a huge massacre the likes of which the world has never seen before,” and Megiddo himself is cast as some dark overlord: “Not one major terror act against Western or Western-allied targets can take place without his implicit or explicit authorization. Even groups that are the sworn enemy of the regime of Iran find themselves working for him, usually without knowing they’re doing so.”
That unevenness — stark realism meets cartoonish excess, male fantasy mars persuasive credibility — undermines what otherwise stands as a stylish and assured debut.”

Hmmm, it seems that TG has blathered on and run out of space. Rather than continue the discussion now, TG will make this entry a two-parter and ask his question in the next issue. Meanwhile, if anyone wants to read Dunn's book, TG will send the first person who asks for it a crisp new hardback. Send your request as a comment.


  1. You know me and free books, always happy to read them!

  2. For someone who hates cheap cliche devices, promising to ask a question and then hold it for the next blog is about as cheap as it gets, TG.


  3. You got it. The book is in the mail.

  4. To Mr. Bo Peep, witholding the question till the next blog is known in the novel writing business as a "cliffhanger" ending. It is not a cheap device, but rather a useful tool of the working author. It encourages the interested reader to turn the page, or in this case, return to the blog at a later time. Since you are obviously not a published author TG will forgive you your amateur mistake.

  5. What do you think of Spycatcher's cover? I think it's pretty cheesy.

  6. Sounds like an interesting book. Certainly has a lot of good quotes and reviews to it's name. The title is Spartan over here in the UK, presumably because there was a famous spy biography called Spycatcher. And Spartan is taking a pounding on the reviews, with most being one or two stars. Hype backlash maybe. I'll check it out.

  7. Tom, you might want to wait until all is said and done on this subject before buying this book.

  8. "All is said and DONE"... was that an intentional pun?