The Spycatcher (2011) is a debut espionage novel by Matthew Dunn, who just happens to have been trained by British SIS, as well as working with units of the SAS, SBS, and MI5, GCHQ and CIA operatives. The credentials are backed up by prose that reeks of insider knowledge.
The book was originally published with the title Spartan in hardback and then retitled for the paperback. The hero, Will Cochrane, is known by the code name Spartan. The British Spartan Programme allows only one man to go through the process, and he will be answerable only to the Prime Minister and his controller, Alistair: Spartan is trained to be a lethal weapon.
It begins with high tension, in New York’s Central Park, where an assignation turns into an assassination. Cochrane is badly wounded but survives (he would, wouldn’t he?) Part of the mystery that is his life unfolds as he is introduced to a secretive American who just happens to know Cochrane’s controller. The debacle in Central Park involved several agents from Iran. Alistair has learned that the Iranians are planning a massive atrocity in either the UK or the USA. Cochrane’s task is to identify the mastermind, capture him and get him to reveal the intended target. Nothing to it, really. Except, as Alistair says, ‘There is nothing regular about this mission.’ Cochrane is sent to meet a MI6 contact in Sarajevo, who knows somebody who might have a lead on the so-called mastermind.
No sooner does he get there than it all goes wrong.
But Cochrane has one lead – Lana, a woman living in Paris, who might have known the ‘mastermind’ during the Bosnian conflict. She was a journalist at the time, and came away scarred both physically and mentally. Reluctantly, he enlists her aid in locating her ex-lover, a man she now hates.
He is aided by a team of four specialists recruited specially for this mission. They’re tough and soon prove their loyalty to Cochrane. The trail will lead from the freezing streets of Sarajevo to the snow-clad mountain region of New York State and the city itself for the violent denouement.
Throughout, we follow the spy’s tradecraft, trailing suspects, killing shadowy agents. These passages are well written, sucking you into the suspenseful story, all the time casting doubt on the ability of innocents to survive. The insider knowledge is evident but never obtrusive. We believe in the apparent invincibility of Spartan. But he makes mistakes; inevitably. Dunn has created a hero readers will willingly follow in subsequent books. Cochrane is flawed, troubled by his past, aching to give it all up and lead a ‘normal’ life, and yet he is a driven soul, wanting to right wrongs, needing to punish those who do evil things. He is not averse to being judge, jury and executioner.
The narrative compels the reader to keep turning the pages. That is what every thriller should do; many don’t manage it.
Dunn has now produced seven books in the Spycatcher series. Be aware that he has also published two novellas and check the review comments of these.
Despite the page-turning ability of the writer, there are certain aspects that should have been addressed by his editors. Almost on every page, somebody’s eyes ‘narrowed’; it became tedious. As for Cochrane’s training, stoic in adversity, it seemed out of character for him to kick the ground (or something else), or stamp his feet ‘in frustration’ so often.
The twist was not a surprise and, in a similar vein to Dan Brown, the explanations seemed contrived. Yet, and yet, the sheer verve of the narrative and the strength of the character Spartan carry you through these minor misgivings. That’s not great literature, but it is good story-telling.
As for the book title change, that seems significant and worthy of note by budding authors. Spartan was fine, since this was the main character’s codename. However, it smacked of a historical novel, not a contemporary espionage thriller. So, I can understand the change. It became The Spycatcher with the strapline ‘It takes a spy to catch a spy’. However, subsequently it soon became simply Spycatcher and then the next books were referred to as Spycatcher novels. And if you examine some of the titles, some have been subtitled ‘A Will Cochrane novel’. Received wisdom is to create a brand. And yet there’s a lack of consistency here; if Harper Collins (and its imprints) can’t manage that, what chance have lesser mortals, I wonder….