February 1981. The Cold War is in full swing. Richard Brodick decides to follow in his father’s footsteps and seeks an exciting role in what used to be called the Great Game, only to find that it turns out to be less of an adventure and more just pure brutal betrayal. As a contract ‘head agent’ for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service based in Pakistan, Brodick’s job is to train Afghans to capture video of the war against the Soviets. He is expected to follow orders, toe the line, keep Mrs T happy back in London. However, what he finds on the ground—in both Pakistan and Afghanistan—is a murky world of blurred lines and conflicting stories. He quickly realises he cannot trust anything he has been told, by anyone. What he had thought would be an adventure spying on the Soviets and their Afghan communist allies turns sour when he’s ordered to kill his best friend. Will he betray his country or his friend? What side will he choose?
Many moons ago I read a Balkan set thriller called The Monkey House which was exceptionally good, but for one reason or another John Fullerton had dropped off my book radar. So it was with some delight that I’ve had the chance to reacquaint myself with his writing with this his newest thriller, Spy Game…
It’s always incredibly satisfying to read fiction that is so underpinned with the sense of the author having ‘walked the walk and talked the talk’ and this is what Fullerton delivers in spades in the fictional world he creates. Having had extensive experience in the British Secret Intelligence Service and as a journalist, Fullerton uses both of these career paths to give his writing a vivid and visceral reality, and enabling the reader to feel the raw authenticity of the book. This was very much appreciated as the Afghan-Soviet conflict is a slice of history that I was relatively unfamiliar with on embarking on this book, leading me to feel at its close that I had learned much of the conflicting sides, and also of how other nations were drawn into the war, manipulating situations and individuals for their own ends. There is much skulduggery, plotting and scheming along the way…
Fullerton’s depiction of the contrasting settings of Pakistan and Afghanistan are infused with a journalist’s eye, and as he compares and contrasts the landscapes of both we are transported from the barren, rocky outposts of a land in the grip of conflict, and the bustling, noisy environs of Peshawar and Islamabad. There was also a wry commentary on the way that the British protagonists operating in Pakistan had managed to create their own little England, similar to the bad old days of the Raj in India, with its own rarefied atmosphere. As Richard Brodick navigates his new path as “an amateur spy and an amateur reporter” in these contrasting worlds, we are taken along with him discovering them for ourselves, and the inherent dangers, both physical or moral that await him.
Brodick is an entirely empathetic character, eager to follow in his father’s footsteps as a spy of some renown, but also to conduct himself in a way that feels morally right to himself, despite the machinations of his changing handlers. As we observe him gaining in confidence as he seeks to recruit valuable sources of information, there is a strand of defiance in his character, which leads to some bad outcomes, and causes him moments of pause as to his chosen career in intelligence. Unlike some authors of these type of thrillers, whose central characters seem to be entirely lacking in fear or empathy, Fullerton succeeds in giving us a more rounded and believable protagonist, who experiences fear, doubt and self questioning, which succeeds in lifting this book above the convenient label of a spy thriller, and bolstering the tension and sense of danger as Brodick goes about his covert activities. He certainly experiences more than his face share of mental and physical discomfort as he criss-crosses the Afghan border, and navigates the nefarious activities that his handlers wish him to participate in to garner information and also to spread misinformation about those that they consider enemies of the state. There is a strong element of pathos to the book as some of those that Brodick connects with are often the victims of this dark world of double-dealing and espionage.
It was really good to reconnect with Fullerton’s work with Spy Game after my long hiatus, and I hope to catch up with the other books in the fullness of time, as his writing is so realistic and seems more vital and authentic due to his own experiences and observations that so evidently inform his books. Cut through with action, danger, the nature of conflict, and insights into the British Intelligence Service, this was a wholly satisfying thriller. Recommended.
(With thanks to Burning Chair for the ARC)
During the Cold War John Fullerton was, for a time, a “contract labourer” for the British Secret Intelligence Service, in the role of head agent on the Afghan-Pakistan frontier. This experience forms the basis of his latest novel, Spy Game. All told, he’s lived or worked in 40 countries as a journalist and covered a dozen wars. For 20 years he was employed by Reuters as a correspondent and editor with postings in Hong Kong, Delhi, Beirut, Nicosia, Cairo, and London. His home is in Scotland.
Follow the author on Twitter @fictionarrative and visit his website HERE