Small confession. If you throw the word 'spy' into the title of your novel, I am probably gonna read it. I have two sources for my obsession, neither of them are James Bond. Now, I love James, but I have never mistaken what 007 does for anything remotely resembling real tradecraft. TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY is about the zenith of fictional spy reality. If you have not seen the 6 hour miniseries from the early 80's do yourself a favor and hole up on some rainy Saturday and let Alec Guiness as George Smiley teach you life lessons about spying for Queen and Country. The other source for me is THE SANDBAGGERS. A wonderful ITV show that played in the UK from 1978 to 1980. Both of these are hyper-realistic... or what I imagine to be hyper-realistic... depictions of the work a day world of the counter-intelligence officer. So that is the short story to why Keith Thomson's ONCE A SPY ended up on my plate.
The hook for ONCE A SPY is Alzheimer's. Drummond Clark is the legendary spy who to his family worked simply for an appliance manufacturer. A spy is only as good as the secrets he can keep, and with the encroaching Alzheimer's, Drummond's deteriorating mind is now his greatest threat. Charlie is the ne'er-do-well son who only becomes hip to his father secret life once his father fatally dispatches two CIA assassins and his dad's apartment is blown to bits. Thus begins a frenzied adventure as Charlie tries to keep his father alive for his rare moments of lucidity when Drummond can figure out what exactly it is that could get them both killed.
Keith Thomson certainly has great affection for his two main characters. The father and son dynamic is well worn territory, but the usual resentments and hurt feelings are mostly for naught in ONCE A SPY. Drummond simply does not remember, and to his credit even Charlie realizes it is cruel to remind his father of missed birthday's and the like. Thomson instead turns his attention to the clean slate that is presented before his two characters. Every day, every hour is a second chance for these two guys to get their relationship right. Maybe others will feel differently but I felt the plot was a red-hearing to these finely drawn father and son moments.
I'm burnt out on the thriller so I am not the best judge of anyone's action writing. Perhaps the highest praise I can bestow here is that I never lost sight of the action before me. It is clearly and cleanly written. Perhaps the largest hill to surmount here is Drummond's moments of lucidity conveniently coinciding with the moments of greatest peril for himself and Charlie. This is what fiction does and I never found these moments terribly distracting. As for my preamble ONCE A SPY is more Flemming than le Carre, but it is an enjoyable ride one that I'll take again when Drummond and Charlie's next adventure knocks at my door.