Jeremy Duns: Free Agent (2008)

Paul Dark is an MI6 Agent who is summoned to the home of his ‘Chief’ to discuss the revelations of a putative Russian defector called Slavin. As the book’s major surprise occurs in Chapter One (which is also the best chapter!) it would be unfair to discuss the plot further. Free Agent is set in 1969 and most of the action takes places in Nigeria in the context of the Nigerian Civil War, although there are also important flashbacks to events in which Paul was involved at the end of WW2 in Germany.

The most interesting thing about this book is a debate about how it is intended to be read. A review on Eurocrime by Michelle Peckham (see http://www.eurocrime.co.uk/reviews/Free_Agent.html ) suggests ‘the book is rather ‘tongue in cheek’ and not entirely to be taken seriously’ , then further that ‘the book doesn’t take itself too seriously.’ I must admit that the opening sentence ‘As I edged the car onto the gravel, the front door of the house swung open and Chief’s steely grey eyes stared down at me’ certainly inclined me to agree with this analysis; surely no-one who was not to some degree engaged in writing a spoof would use the phrase ‘steely grey eyes’? The somewhat labyrinthine plot convolutions of the opening chapters did nothing to dissuade me from this analysis.

However once the action shifted to Nigeria I soon stated to revise my assessment. However cartoonish Paul Dark’s personal story may be, Duns is very serious about the Nigerian conflict; no-one would write about the plight of the Biafrans in the way he does without being wholly serious. This seriousness is fully confirmed when one reaches the end of the book and finds a lengthy Author’s Note detailing the reading and research he did for the book, followed by a lengthy bibliography. No, I am afraid that I cannot accept the ‘tongue in cheek’ line; I think this is intended as a serious spy story in the le Carre tradition. The problem with this of course is that if intended as such the very fact that it can even be suggested with some plausibility that it is not serious means that something has gone fairly substantially wrong! No-one is likely to suggest that le Carre (or to give another example of a superb book I have recently read Robert Wilson’s Small Death in Lisbon) is not serious. I do not mean that these writers are monotone; part of their quality is that they are not. But their fundamental gravitas is unquestionable.

So what has gone wrong here? Firstly, as suggested by the first sentence, the quality of the writing which is simply not good enough; too prone to cliché and the obvious. Secondly, the preposterousness of the plot and abundance of conspiracy theorising. I suppose the philosophical basis for this is revealed by Duns choice of frontispiece quote ’Man is not the creature of circumstances; circumstances are the creatures of men. We are free agents, and man is more powerful than matter’ which is taken from Disraeli’s Vivian Grey. Now the extent to which one accepts this view of the human situation depends on one’s own philosophical standpoint (I freely admit to finding it, as a bald statement of this kind, risible; it may partially explain the extreme poorness of the one Disraeli novel I have read). In the context of this particular book however it does three things. In the first place stands as a rebuttal to Marxist thought (the presentation of which in Free Agent is a caricature). Secondly, it indicates that Duns does have a serious agenda here, and is therefore another point against the ‘tongue in cheek’ argument. However, thirdly, one could also argue that Duns is using the quote ironically; at the very end of the book Paul Dark is seen as anything but a ‘Free Agent’. And certainly this is essential to any novel of this kind which is going to succeed in a serious way. The historical forces must be vast and overarching, and although the interplay between those forces and individual actions can be continuously explored and re-explored, the best authors working in this field are wholly aware of this.

My conclusions? Free Agent is intended as a serious book not a spoof. The fact that it might be considered a spoof, and I admit there are grounds for so thinking, in itself reveals its failure as a serious book. It may be that Duns will prove capable of correcting these faults – this is the first in an intended series featuring Paul Dark – but to do so there will have to be a very substantial improvement in writing, plotting and characterisation.

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