Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Jon Stock: Dirty Little Secret

Say this for Jon Stock, he's a fast read. I've been dipping in and out of Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker since the beginning of the month, reading a few pages here and a few there, because Harkaway is too good to use up too quickly, and by contrast I whipped through Dirty Little Secret between the weekend and last night, all 430 or so pages of it. Because I had to, pretty much. It needed to get read, and there was no point in savouring it. It's not outright barbarous writing, and the chapters are short, which pulls you along from one moment to the next, but from about half way through my principal aim was get to the end, not even to find out what was going to happen, but just to get to the end.

All of what was bugging me in Games Traitors Play  is on full display in Dirty Little Secret. As I often do, I flipped to the author's notes at the end to see if there was anything interesting in them, and noted with a wince that he had a special thank you to someone for kite-surfing lessons. Dur, I thought to myself. Daniel Marchant is going to make a speedy getaway with a kite-surfing rig at some point. And so it came to pass. As did a number of other things which might have looked quite nifty on the TV. There is much wafting of technology, including a wonderful notion of subverting the bar code scanners in a local Waitrose so that they can be used to convey information between spies. On the one hand, why bother with the Waitrose scanners? My smartphone's had a barcode reader in it for the past three years. And on the other hand, that's one heck of a barcode if it can encode a recognisable picture of someone and have it show up on the screen of a barcode scanner. If you could write a compression algorithm that good, why would you work for the KGB? Sorry, it's the SVR now. Though to me, it will always be, in Charlie Sheen's eloquent words, the KG-used-to-Be.

Anyhow, now that I've read all three Daniel Marchant books, I can give a considered opinion. I reckon there's one perfectly good book hiding in there somewhere, skewered through the vitals by a bunch of adequate TV scripts. I'm not sure I'd have gone out of my way for either.


PS. Being an almost invisible blogger is a hobby with few noticeable consequences, but to my considerable shock, Jon Stock actually tripped over my review for Games Traitors Play, and was so thoroughly nice about my comments on it that I returned guiltily to this review. As I said in the comments on Games Traitors Play, this review suffered from the fact that I'd already covered some of the ground about the Daniel Marchant books only a few days before and didn't feel like redigging the ground. That's all very well and good if you're just thinking about my administrative convenience, but that's not really respecting the work.

The fundamental issue with the whole Daniel Marchant trilogy (and I keep a wary eye on the notion that the string has run out on this, since it ends in an open-ended way) is that there's a perfectly good book in there about the moral compromise of espionage and the way in which managing assets is a slippery slope to a lot of other kinds of exploitation. And then layered on top of it and through it is a series of other episodic well-cool stunts which belong in a completely different book. Stock's first novel, the all-but-unobtainable The Riot Act, is instructive in this respect; it's a pretty bleak mashup of kitchen sink student drama and Orwellian surveillance state paranoia; it's not a fun read, but it hangs together well as an effort to write something which gives a realistic angle on the way that infiltration and secret policing can impact on ordinary lives. The Marchant books are driven by a couple of very similar engines; Marchant's alter ego is not just his opponent in terror, but his half brother, while his romantic interest is a compromised American spy whose romance with him is undercut by the fact that it was her job to romance him in the first place. The secondary characters have similar problems, all of which circle back on the way in which the national security agenda can't help but corrupt and destroy the people who have to prosecute it. 

Navigating this kind of thing is a tight rope act for the writer, who has to skirt the constant problem of contrivance; yes, it makes an interesting point that these enemies are really brothers, but it strains credibility that they'd be strangers for so long and THEN enemies. Stock handles that problem deftly; Marchant is clueless; his opponent considerably less so, and thus it's credible over time that Marchant can be caught unawares by a "Luke, I am your father" moment. Psychologically, what's in play rings true. That, of course, means that there's no need for big unwieldy mcguffins, but a six figure book deal optioned for a movie or two makes mcguffins inescapable; hence the segways, the kite surfing and the three movie-plot terrorist conspiracies. Dirty Little Secret has the bad guys setting up a combo shahid/national embarrassment attack in which the chief terrorist is set up as a pawn to die gloriously in an asymmetric attack on the US 6th fleet using high performance speedboats. This is actually less ridiculous than the plot in Games Traitors Play, not least because any idea that Marine Lt-Gen Van Riper can come up with has my automatic attention. It's still way too glitzy for the more grown-up problems that Stock's characters are wrestling with. That's what made me grumpy. I wasn't happy with what was happening to the cast of characters, but it made sense; having some kind of Tom Clancy plot going on around them the whole time was just ruining my immersion in the real carnage.

And lets end on a note of clearing something up; I don't think these are bad books; it's just the spy genre doesn't do much for me. The good parts are good parts of something I don't often read. I don't read legal drama either. I read to get away from things. 

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