Thursday, August 18, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: 'Spycatcher' by Matthew Dunn

Spy thrillers are legion in the world of popular fiction, like serial killer stories or military adventures. This one is receiving much of its buzz based on the fact that the author, Matthew Dunn, is an actual ex-agent for British intelligence, who is using his real name and his real experiences to pen fictional accounts of spies.

Spycatcher is Dunn’s debut, and the debut of his hero, Will Cochrane. Cochrane is more than just your average spy. He is Spartan, an elite agent put through a one-man training program to become the most highly skilled and dangerous operative the British have. So basically, he’s James Bond, but the suave, the card playing and the vodka drinking go out the window from page one.

Dunn’s hero is a hardened soldier, a warrior trained to carry out the mission and not stop until the job is done. This particular job begins when a long-time Iranian informant dies, and Cochrane himself is nearly killed in the ensuing scuffle with terrorists. With the help of higher-ups in both MI6 and the CIA, Cochrane uncovers a massive terrorist conspiracy centered around one man: Meggido, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general who is a legendary force in the spy world. And what’s more, he might just be the man responsible for a dark event in Cochrane’s own past. With a ticking clock winding down to a massive terrorist event, Cochrane has to bring Meggido down or risk the death of hundreds.

Spycatcher has all the trappings of a conventional spy thriller – exotic locales, shadowy meetings, even a damsel in distress (of sorts). Where it breaks away from the rest of the genre is in the rawness of Dunn’s writing, something that’s both a blessing and a curse for the novel.

You can tell that Dunn has been in the spy game, and the reason you can tell is that a great many moments, characters and descriptions in Spycatcher are seen through a different lens than that of any other thriller author working today. Dunn’s world is one filled with shadows. People aren’t fully formed, places are seen in terms of what they mean to the mission. In Will Cochrane’s eyes, everything is the objective, everything is getting the job done. This is the result of Dunn’s attempt to bring a truer version of a spy story – where things are much more businesslike and done with much less finesse – to life.

The downside of this, of course, is that it doesn’t always make for the most entertaining reading. The often half-formed, shadowy men that populate Cochrane’s world become wooden characters. The locales become names and not places. The mission becomes a  roadmap and not an experience. Most of the time the story’s simple uniqueness of spirit shines through, but occasionally it gets lost in the attempt to make things seem more real.

Spycatcher is an entertaining and fast read, but one that’s definitely the work of a beginner. If Dunn can learn how to be a writer telling a spy story rather than a spy writing down what it’s like to be a spy, then his next works will be even better. As it is, his debut effort still manages to pump out a good bit of fun.

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