Book Review: Dead Spy Running by Jon Stock
Jon Stock’s Dead Spy Running is an exciting, well-written, and compulsively page-turning spy thriller in the globetrotting Robert Ludlum vein. It follows a suspended British agent named Daniel Marchant, son of the late, disgraced former head of MI6, Stephen Marchant, as he races the clock to clear them both of accusations of treachery. Along the way, he dodges not only bombs and bullets, but also the divergent agendas of supposed allies MI5, MI6, the CIA and the US Secret Service (sometimes mistakenly referred to—in the British edition, anyway—as the "Security Service"). Despite having a few misgivings of the decidedly nitpicky variety (like that one), I found it to be a really enjoyable read and a good start to a new spy series. (I believe Stock envisions a trilogy of Marchant tales, the second of which, Games Traitors Play, is out in paperback in the UK this week.)
Dead Spy Running is a page-turner from the very beginning. Things get off to a great start in an exciting opening set at the London Marathon. Marchant is running on a whim (actually, more the whim of his girlfriend—fellow agent Leila—than his own) and just happens to spot a very suspicious participant laden with a belt full of bottles he’s not drinking from. It turns out to be a Speed-like scenario, and the bottles—really explosives, of course—will detonate if the runner doesn’t maintain pace for an eight-minute mile. It’s all part of a rather elaborate terrorist plot to assassinate the American ambassador—a plot Marchant manages to thwart. Neither MI5 nor the CIA, however, put much stock in the coincidence of a suspended officer (whose loyalty they already doubt because of aspersions cast on his father) just happening to stumble upon such a plot, and instead of being hailed as a hero, Marchant finds himself on a CIA rendition flight to Poland, water-boarded and accused of collusion with the terrorists.
Quotes on the jacket (“A Jason Bourne sweat-fest with George Smiley’s brain!” exclaims the Daily Telegraph, thus coining my least favorite new phrase of the decade in “sweat-fest”) and log lines for the film (in development with McG’s company since before the book was even published as a directing vehicle for Syriana’s Stephen Gaghan) all evoke the somewhat unlikely union of John Le Carré and Robert Ludlum—and that’s clearly deliberate from the get-go. Dead Spy Running is quite sensibly—and very carefully—based on the template of Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. (The previous spy chief is dead in disgrace after becoming obsessed with a mole in MI6 who he couldn’t successfully identify despite a private, last-ditch mission to do so). And why not? You could do a lot worse than modeling your spy thriller on the greatest espionage novel of all time. Onto that are grafted elements of Bourne, Alias and Len Deighton’s "Game, Set, Match" trilogy—mostly with admirable success. But despite the Le Carré jumping-off point, Dead Spy Running hews more closely to the escapist adventure fare of Ludlum and Ian Fleming than the grim, gritty, and unfailingly depressing realism favored by Le Carré and Deighton.
It bothered me a bit that rather than being content to deliver a fantastic piece of escapist entertainment, Stock seems to aspire to a level of realism that’s not really compatible with the more sensationalist aspects of his action-packed story. He even does that thing that all spy writers do when they want their books to appear more gritty and realistic than they are: he disparages James Bond. When spymaster Marcus Fielding relates what tour guides say about MI6’s famous “Legoland” headquarters complex, it amounts (in his words) to “the usual Bond nonsense, M’s office.” Sure, Bond may be nonsense, but let’s not kid ourselves: so is Dead Spy Running. Thrilling, engrossing nonsense—just like Bond. (Happily, Stock makes up for the slight against 007 by dropping in lots of little Easter eggs for spy fans, like a butler who learned English from Sixties spy fare and says things like, “Be seeing you,” and a foreign advisor to the PM named Bruce Lockhart.)
The ending feels a bit rushed and sloppy and finally devolves into one of those “Dumbledore explains it all” final chapters in which one high-ranking MI6 officer conveniently outlines all the details of the plot that the hero couldn’t have learned otherwise (and probably wouldn’t have the clearance to know anyway). The head of MI6 makes way too many excuses for the mole who’s wreaked havoc in his organization for years, throwing around adjectives like “courageous” and “selfless” because the author wants to associate those attributes with the flawed character’s actions. That's okay, but attributing such sentiments to the Chief of the Service seems wrong. (Can you imagine Smiley calling Gerald selfless or courageous?) Furthermore, connections between Al Qaeda and an organization/country not typically associated with them (though sometimes speculated to be) are drawn hastily and sketchily for the sake of expedience, but not spelled out enough to really make sense. Perhaps that will come in the sequel. For now, though, it’s a shame that a book that for the most part goes out of its way to delineate different religious sects and factions makes a sort of “they’re all against us together” leap at the end.
Suddenly my positive review of a book I very much enjoyed isn’t seeming as positive as I intend it to. I think the reason that I found myself so hung up on these small details is because, overall, I liked the book so much that they stood out more glaringly than they would have in a novel I was otherwise indifferent towards. Dead Spy Running comes so close that I desperately wanted it to succeed one hundred percent, and ended up getting sidetracked by the small things. The only people those things are really likely to bother are spies and spy fans. As for the former, well, they seem like a tough crowd to please with popular literature about their profession.The latter, however (i.e. readers of this blog), I strongly encourage to read this book and ignore the minor faults. I suspect most will enjoy it as much as I did.
While he might lack the master’s attention to detail, something John Stock has in common with John Le Carré is a handy turn of phrase. Stock is a very good writer (even if he does use the phrase "cerulean sky" twice within two chapters), and the result is an escapist thriller told in far superior prose to what I’m used to from popular practitioners of this genre, like Ludlum or Dan Brown—yet retaining those authors’ gifts for pacing and plot twists. The result is a gripping, fast-moving and genuinely sexy (much more-so than Le Carré ever mustered on that front!) page-turner that I didn’t want to end. I’m looking forward to revisiting these characters in Games Traitors Play, and I’m equally looking forward to seeing them realized cinematically in Gaghan’s film. Now that I’ve read the book, that’s quickly become one of the spy movies on the horizon that I’m most eagerly anticipating. I hope it comes to fruition and lives up to its source material.