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by Matthew Dunn
Orion, January 2013
320 pages
16.99 GBP
ISBN: 140914397X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

CIA headquarters has received what is obviously only part of a message from MI6 sleeper agent 'Svelte' operating in Russia. The message reads, 'He has betrayed us and wants to go to war……' Will Cochrane, who carries the codename 'Spartan' – a name historically reserved for only the most effective agent – is instructed to find out to whom the message referred and what had happened to the agent who sent it. His mission, which takes him to a nuclear submarine base in Russia, is highly dangerous and the author does an excellent job of describing it in the opening chapters. Cochrane's thoughts as well as his actions are presented in an episode reminiscent of John le Carré at his Cold War best. The tradecraft employed to get into and out of the base is totally convincing and the action fast moving and highly exciting. This episode is followed by a much more slowly-paced chapter in which Cochrane meets Patrick and Alistair, joint heads of a specially formed CIA/MI6 task force. The vital information that Cochrane had managed to bring back from Russia enables them to fill him in on the background and to brief him on his overall mission. This is to protect the Western spies forming the network built up by the legendary Sentinel - a former holder of the Spartan codename.

So far SENTINAL is very much a page-turner but after this the book wanes, partly because of an overall failure in characterization. In spite of references to his childhood and to a life before the CIA, Cochrane never comes across as a fully rounded character. We are asked to believe in him as having the physique and strength of Superman and a brain to match, but whilst it is just possible to accept the first, there is nothing in his thought processes to suggest the second. If anything, the villain, who is supposed to possess the same qualities and to be a match for him, is drawn even more sketchily. The author appears to be emphasizing his powers in order to make his hero more heroic. We are told, for example, that he can hit a playing card a mile away without even getting down into a rifle-firing position. Moreover, he can do this ten times in a row whilst nobody else can get within feet of the target. In fact there is scarcely a memorable character in the whole book.

However, it is not only poor characterization that makes the story so disappointing. The attempt to create an atmosphere of treachery and espionage is overly ambitious. There is far too much coming and going and it is frequently necessary to do some back-tracking to ascertain why Cochrane and his associates are where they are and precisely what they are trying to accomplish. The author is also too anxious to demonstrate his encyclopaedic knowledge of the tradecraft of the spy. A whole chapter is devoted to one particular description of a pursuit, both in a car and on foot, of a man who will lead them to the villain. Far too much detail is given of the way in which observation of the target is switched from one member of the team to another and when the chase reaches Moscow a street map of the city is required in order for it to make sense. The attention paid to weapons and equipment is almost obsessive and it is hardly surprising that a glossary is required to explain not only these but also the large number of initials representing various military and intelligence organizations.

By the end, I was yearning for a hero who is just a little less omnipotent. Where is Jim Prideaux when you need him?

§ Arnold Taylor is a retired Examinations Board Officer, amateur writer and even more amateur bridge player.

Reviewed by Arnold Taylor, February 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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