Books
4:47 pm
Mon March 29, 2010

Once a Spy by Keith Thomas

The publicity for Once a Spy has been craftily qualified. Birmingham author Keith Thomson is making his "debut on the thriller stage." There is no mention of Thomson's two previous novels, Pirates of Pensacola (2005) and Gus Openshaw's Whale-Killing Journal (2007). I think this is because the previous two novels were terrifically amusing comedies, and the spy novel, as practiced by John Le Carre and Len Deighton, or, farther back, Graham Greene or Eric Ambler, is very serious business indeed.

The publicity for Once a Spy has been craftily qualified. Birmingham author Keith Thomson is making his "debut on the thriller stage." There is no mention of Thomson's two previous novels, Pirates of Pensacola (2005) and Gus Openshaw's Whale-Killing Journal (2007). I think this is because the previous two novels were terrifically amusing comedies, and the spy novel, as practiced by John Le Carre and Len Deighton, or, farther back, Graham Greene or Eric Ambler, is very serious business indeed.

Maybe Doubleday just didn't know how to package Once a Spy. It is a hybrid?a truly funny spy novel.

Once a Spy is not a spoof/satire of the spy genre as perhaps Get Smart or Mike Myers' The Spy Who Shagged Me are. Once a Spy is a real thriller, with lots of real blood and a great many terminations with extreme prejudice, but it is also a comic romp.

The premise is politically incorrect, one might say, and a little risky.

The protagonist, Charlie Clark, 30, is by any measurement, a mess, an unsuccessful professional gambler whose specialty is the horses. Despite the application of a lot of time, effort and system, Charlie hasn't had a winner in ages and is in deep dept to loan-sharks in the Brighton Beach Russian mob.

Insofar as he thinks about it, Charlie puts a lot of the blame on his father, Drummond Clark. Dad worked for decades for Perriman Appliances, mainly washers and dryers. He worked days and nights and was often out of town at meetings or to set up new territories. Drummond was a most faithful employee of Perriman Appliances but a shamefully negligent father.

Now Drummond has early onset Alzheimer's and needs Charlie's help. Charlie is cool to dad but believes he may have some financial resources that Charlie, with power of attorney, can get his hands on and save himself from the Russian mob. No sooner do father and son have this faux reunion than all hell breaks loose. People shoot at them. The Drummonds' apartment building is blown up. What is happening? Is it the Russian mob?

The reader quickly learns that Drummond, though he really does have Alzheimer's, is not what he seems. When attacked, he shows extraordinary skills in hand-to-hand combat. He somehow knows how to hot-wire cars, even fly a helicopter. Under pressure he can manufacture weapons like MacGyver. What is going on? By now you have guessed. Drummond was a lifelong professional spy, not an appliance salesman, and he has atomic secrets locked, now insecurely, in his brain. While the bad guys want the secrets, the "good guys" are just as willing to kill him to keep him from spilling them, and in many cases, some of the bad guys are good guys and vice versa.

It is a riot. As Charlie slowly catches on, he tries to figure out what his dad knows, and, even more important, when his dad's powers will show themselves?because sometimes they don't and Drummond will just goes silent and vague and remembers nothing at all.

The action builds and moves around, from Brooklyn to Cuba to Virginia and finally back to the Columbia University scene of the old Manhattan Project. Charlie quickly, of necessity, learns some spycraft of his own under Drummond's tutelage, and the book becomes a more conventional thriller.

I feared for a while that this novel was a one-trick pony, with Drummond, in crisis, responding with one bit of spy wizardry after the next, finally in a predictable manner. It didn't happen that way. The novel evolves; the relationship between father and son grows and strengthens, and, in scene after scene, becomes satisfying as a thriller. There is also a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and a very nice love interest.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio on March 29, 2010.

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