The first question you might ask about Thomas Caplan’s “The Spy Who Jumped Off the Screen” is just why Bill Clinton has — as the novel’s front cover proclaims — written its introduction. Clinton quickly answers that question: The two men met as freshmen at Georgetown University nearly 50 years ago and have been friends ever since. Caplan helped in Clinton’s race for freshman class president and, several decades later, contributed to his inaugural addresses. Now, with his generous and readable introduction, Clinton returns the favors.
Along with several other writers who have blurbed the book, Clinton declares that it is stylish, sophisticated and in the James Bond tradition. All this is true. The novel has its faults, but at best it’s a fanciful, enjoyable romp that centers on three stolen nuclear warheads — the fate of mankind! — even as it carries us deep into the world of people who are as dangerous and degenerate as they are rich.
The title character is a handsome devil named Ty Hunter who has been a Special Forces operative and then, after being discovered by Hollywood, becomes the “number-one box office star in the world,” rapidly eclipsing the likes of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. Hunter’s talents lead the president of the United States to recruit him to spearhead the search for the missing warheads. His movie-star fame will open all doors, the president reasons, and his mastery of the martial arts will guarantee his success. Eat your heart out, 007.
Our hero is pitted against two seemingly reputable men who are actually rotten to the core: Ian Santal, a one-time Oxford don turned billionaire dealmaker and clandestine arms merchant, and his “nefarious protege,” Philip Frost, who’s handsome, charming and homicidal. Moving innocently among these suave monsters is the lovely, 27-year-old Isabella Cavill, Santal’s goddaughter and Frost’s girlfriend. Isabella, who designs jewelry in Rome, doesn’t know that when not sharing her bed, Frost patronizes Europe’s most expensive call girls and treats them very, very badly. A dangerous triangle emerges when Isabella and Ty experience lust at first sight.
Much of the novel focuses less on the stolen warheads than on life in what Clinton rightly calls “a culture of privilege.” The story careens from Beverly Hills to Camp David to a movie premiere hosted by the queen of England, from Rome to Tangier to a bullfight in Seville to Santal’s 360-foot yacht, anchored off Cap d’Antibes. These are people who drive Bentley Continental Flying Spurs, wear De Bethune DB15 Complication watches, occupy $5,000 suites at Claridge’s and the Hotel du Cap, and drink priceless wines that, when properly opened, emit “the sigh of a contented virgin.”
They are people who drip sophistication: The women part from their lovers with a jaunty “fingers crossed, knees bent. See you when I see you.” A Hollywood star visits a “regression analyst . . . someone who can tell you who you were in your past lives.” The lovely Isabella wonders, “What was beauty anyway, but a moment in time?” Expensive jewels always come with a curse: “The men who give them.” This is a world of billionaires, dictators, desert princes and warlords, all of whom see themselves as “a species apart, more like gods than men.”
Caplan lives in Maryland and has published three previous novels. I don’t know how much time he’s spent with decadent billionaires, but his portrait of them is a delight. It’s a bit of a letdown when, near its end, the book reverts to more conventional Bond-style derring-do, as our hero struggles to recapture the warheads and save Isabella from the villains, as planes, submarines, gunboats and even drones do battle on, above and below the blue, indifferent waters of the Mediterranean.
Amid the fun, there are lapses. Caplan’s characters tend to overflow with clever, pointless chatter. An opening scene, in which a very rich man is murdered, is a gem; another scene, when Ty and an heiress bicker in public until she throws a drink in his face, is inane. And Caplan twice tells us that Isabella “gushed” as she spoke. In my experience, women as lovely as Isabella rarely gush and never twice in six pages.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Post.
THE SPY WHO JUMPED OFF THE SCREEN
By Thomas Caplan
Viking. 386 pp. $26.95