Review of “Spycatcher”



By:  Matthew Dunn

William Morrow, 2011. 


Why would Spycatcher (published as Spartan in London by Weidenfeld & Nicolson) be of interest to a non-fiction reader? Most likely because the author claims to have served in the British Secret Intelligence Service for ‘nearly six years’ between 1995 and 2001, a period during which he completed ‘approximately seventy missions, all successfully’. It is also asserted that he is the first SIS officer to have written a novel under his own name, apparently having forgotten Compton Mackenzie and Willie Somerset Maugham and a dozen others, including, more recently, Kenneth Benton. He also says that ‘medals are never awarded to modern MI6 officers’ which will come as a surprise to, for example, Sir Gerry Warner, Sir Mark Allen and more than a hundred members of the Order of St Michael and St George who are entitled to carry the letters CMG after their surname in recognition of their decoration.

These are not the only statements made by the author’s publishers, either in publicity material or on the dustjacket itself that raise doubts, and another example is his insistence that if caught on any of his deep cover missions into highly hostile environments, he would have been executed. Of course, no SIS officer has ever been executed in the more than one hundred years of the Service, so that boast seems a little hollow. However, in conversation the author, who is a graduate of the University of East Anglia and the recipient of a commendation from the late Foreign Secretary Robin Cook for his work in an anti-terrorism case, distances himself from the publicity material circulated on his behalf. But according to the dustjacket, the author has drawn on his ‘fascinating experience’ to craft an ‘authentic picture of today’s secret world.’

Hyperbole or not, the obvious objective of such a marketing strategy is to give the impression to a potential readership that Spycatcher offers a degree of verisimilitude. If not, why promote the author as a former real-life spook? His declared aim is that he ‘wanted my readers to know how it can feel being an intelligence field operative.’

As Dunn’s central theme is that his material is based on his own experiences, naturally one is tempted to take a professional view of his plot and the tradecraft he describes. At the heart of the novel is a thirty-five year-old SIS super-spy, codenamed SPARTAN, whose identity is known only to the Chief and one other senior officer. Allegedly this role is only ever fulfilled by one specially-trained SIS officer who is entrusted with deniable tasks approved by the prime minister of the day. Naturally, each prime minister is sworn to secrecy about SPARTAN’s existence whose true name, William Cochrane, is protected, even within SIS itself.

Spycatcher opens with an account of an Iranian intelligence defector who attends a dawn rendezvous with representatives of his old organisation in New York’s Central Park under SIS’s supervision. We are told that the Iranian defected from the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) eight years earlier, having been persuaded to remain in place for awhile when he first approached SIS. When it was suspected that his ‘cover could be compromised’ he was exfiltrated to Europe to become an entrepreneur, but nevertheless continued to spy. Soroush Abtahi, protected by three armed SIS bodyguards and his case officer, Will Cochrane, has been persuaded to re-establish contact with the MOIS for the sole purpose of finding out why the organization wants to see him.

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