There’s been recent literary interest in the famous MI6 traitors of the twentieth century – Ben MacIntyre’s classic book on Kim Philby, and more recently Andrew Lownie’s thoughtful, more sympathetic bio of Guy Burgess. The lives of the Cambridge spies follow a familiar arc – Eton, university, WW2, Secret Service, promotion, ardour, travel, booze – then exposure, a last-moment fade to the Soviet Union, and a final act of lonely, alcohol-assisted decline. (All the spies who ended their days in Moscow – Philby, Burgess, Maclean – seem to have missed England terribly. Lownie’s chapters on Burgess’s last days in Russia make you actually feel sorry for the guy).
Jeremy Duns‘s trilogy of spy books broke the curve. His double agent Paul Dark was converted to the Soviet cause by a moment of love and betrayal at the end of the second world war. By the time we meet him, in 1969, Dark has long lost all illusions in the glory of communism, but still plays his parallel masters off each other. He’s a man in blood, and won’t turn back, because exposure could mean a 42-year sentence, George Blake style. Immediately into Free Agent, a Soviet defector wanders into the Nigerian station, and Dark jumps on the next flight to neutralise the potential tattletale, and pronto. The story doesn’t stop until the end of the third book, The Moscow Option, when Dark is deported to Russia and scrambling to prevent a nuclear holocaust. The narration is crisp and first person. Difficulty and attrition is around every corner. Everything that can go wrong does, and Duns does not let you go for a second.
Spy Out the Land is kind of a departure, giving Dark a few years’ break living as a fugitive in Stockholm, where he’s settled down with a wife and child. Duns switches to third person for this, introducing a range of supporting characters and global events centring around a summit in then Rhodesia. Soviet agents, white supremacists and MI6 agents converge on Dark’s own drama hunting down his kidnapped family. This change of pace and scope doesn’t always work and there’s even elements of creaking and clunking as the international vectors of the plot kick into gear.
Still, the results are compelling. This is the moment when Rachel Gold, a young analyst on Dark’s trail, reflects on her intuition into intelligence work. It’s come from a random glance at a family album, when Gold failed to recognise her aunt:
But that fraction of a moment when she had seemed a stranger had troubled her. She had always been very close to Auntie Hannah and previously would have sworn she’d have recognised her anywhere, at once. The moment had taught her that even if you thought you knew something or someone completely, early impressions could shape your perception of them and as a result you could miss things – data – that had been sitting there in front of you all along.
There’s a phrase, the ecstasy of perfect recognition, which is supposed to say it all about our relationship with art. But there is a dark art – pulp, horror, fantasy, cops and robbers, spies – which is all about unrecognition, which lives in the moment where you notice some crucial detail, something off-kilter and misaligned and deeply disturbing… and sometimes we don’t notice this until it’s too late and the lock has clicked in the door and there are ominous shadows pooling up and around you. It seems to me that moments like this are at the heart of the espionage novel, and no one does them better than Jeremy Duns in that para.