Patrick Anderson reviews Keith Thomson's 'Twice a Spy'

By Patrick Anderson
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 10:37 PM

As I read "Twice a Spy," Keith Thomson's stab at a humorous spy novel, I kept thinking of the old actor's last words: "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."

This is not to say that first-rate humor can't be squeezed out of the spy game. Graham Greene triumphed in "Our Man in Havana"; Robert Littell provided ultra-black comedy in "The Defection of A.J. Lewinter"; and former CIA analyst Susan Hasler scored just last year in her ironically titled "Intelligence," which satirized the CIA's dubious performance during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

Thomson's novel - a sequel to his maiden effort, "Once a Spy" - does not equal those sterling works, but it's a good-natured romp that offers slapstick and endless fast-paced shootouts and chases, all of which help compensate for its ramshackle plot. Our heroes are a father-and-son team, Drummond and Charlie Clark. Charlie had long thought his father was an eccentric appliance salesman and has only recently learned that he has for three decades been a brilliant undercover agent of the CIA. Drummond has masterminded a secret unit that sells nuclear weapons, concealed inside washing machines, to terrorist groups. Once the sale is made, the terrorists are seized and the washing machines recovered before the nukes can do harm.

Alas, in his mid-60s, Drummond has developed early-onset Alzheimer's disease, and deceitful colleagues are planning to kill him and start selling the washing machines for profit. (The washing-machine conceit, be it noted, is likely homage to the vacuum cleaners that play a central role in "Our Man in Havana.") As the novel opens, father, son and a comely ex-National Security Agency official named Alice are in Switzerland, fleeing the killers. Alice is one of two women in the book who can kill you with almost any small object that happens to be at hand. She purports to be in love with Charlie, but in this world no one is to be trusted, bedmates included.

A good deal of the book's humor is built around Drummond's Alzheimer's. Although he often seems to be living in a fog, at crucial moments the old spook is able to charm, deceive or disarm his adversaries ("danger tended to jolt him into clarity"). This is only the second time I've seen Alzheimer's used for comic effect (the first was a series of jokes Roger Miller told at the Birchmere some 20 years ago), and some readers might consider this humor politically incorrect or worse. I must say that I objected not to the Alzheimer's jokes - despite his disability, Drummond is, after all, the closest thing the book has to a heroic figure - but to the novel's proliferation of lame jokes generally.

Examples: "One of the police cars was now close enough that Charlie could make out the driver's mustache - the traditional Burt Reynolds model." "Drummond Clark could have convinced a polygraph that it was a toaster." A middle-aged couple "looked like Superman and Lois Lane fifteen years after their first meeting." A small plane provides "the bumpiest takeoff since Kitty Hawk."

To be sure, there are good lines in the book. I liked this aside on real estate: "New money often didn't aspire beyond a McMansion with superfluous turrets, their sensibilities shaped by Donald Trump." And this capsule summary: "the young woman in a Princeton sweatshirt at the other end of the bar. . . . Aphrodite with green eyes and a damned good attendance record at the gym." But the good lines are outnumbered by the groaners.

Mostly our two heroes are kept in near-constant motion. They flee three police cars in a hijacked Amphibus that moves at a snail's pace on both land and sea. After the pilot bails out, they find themselves high above the Caribbean in a plane neither man can fly. They are arrested, thrown in jail, rescued and then caught in a hail of bullets. As the story nears its end, Drummond fades away, the jokes slow down and, in more conventional thriller style, Charlie tries to stop the villains from nuking a Gulf Coast resort hotel where an international economic conference is underway.

One of this novel's admirers blurbed it thusly: "Think Carl Hiaasen taking on John le Carre." Personally, I'd rather not contemplate such a train wreck. How you react to "Twice a Spy" will largely depend on your tolerance for whimsy. But Thomson's weakness for dumb jokes aside, he writes fluid, vivid prose, good dialogue and first-rate action scenes. I couldn't help thinking he should leave the slapstick to others and apply his talents to a more conventional thriller. The old thespian nailed it: Comedy is hard.

Anderson regularly reviews thrillers for Book World.


By Keith Thomson

Doubleday. 326 pp. $25.95

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