If you’ve never cared much for thrillers, Keith Thomson’s genre debut could cause you to have a conversion experience. It’s that gripping and good. If you’re already a reader whose criteria for a page-turner include a surfeit of suspense, plot twists, mysterious murders, dangerous chases, narrow escapes, thwarted villains and a few triumphs by an unlikely hero or two, then Once A Spy should satisfy you. It’s got all that, plus horseracing, romance and a tender tale of an estranged-for-life father and son duo finally figuring out how to live with and love each other.
Thomson, who will read from and sign copies of Once A Spy at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, March 10, at the Alabama Booksmith, explained his inspiration for the novel in a recent column he wrote for The Huffington Post:
I was once dating a young woman we’ll call Jane, and I was intimidated by her prior boyfriends, who included the likes of an All-Big-Ten quarterback, one of the youngest Fortune 500 CEOs, and a comparably successful financier who was fluent in several languages. The financier and I happened to have gone to the same college and graduated the same year, but we never met, probably because I only hung out with mortals.
I suffered from the comparisons to this pantheon of great boyfriends until Jane told me a story about the time the financier took her home to Virginia for Thanksgiving.
Tragically, Alzheimer’s had forced the financier’s father into retirement in his early sixties —he’d been a big American company’s factory manager in several foreign countries. While the family lived abroad and the son soaked up cultures and languages, becoming a worldly sophisticate, the father was a xenophobe of the Archie Bunker school, going out of his way to procure Budweiser and adamantly sticking to speaking English. Accordingly, everyone around the table that Thanksgiving day in Virginia was surprised when he began speaking French.
Taking in the looks of mystification, he switched to German.
Evidently, xenophobic factory manager and Bud man had been cover.
I wondered: What do intelligence agencies do when operatives lose their ability to retain important secrets?
The hypothetical intrigued him enough, Thomson explains, to write an entire novel. The result is a really rousing book, full of wit and cinematic detail.
The novel’s plot goes like so: By all appearances, Drummond Clark was always a humdrum guy — a widower who sold appliances for several decades before his retirement and whose straight-laced, no-frills, mostly emotionless life engendered precious little interest from and even less affection in his 30-year-old son Charlie. Then again, Charlie’s lifestyle was anathema to his father: After dropping out of college, Charlie had more or less made a full-time job out of betting on horses at the track. Contact between father and son was limited to an awkward annual phone call, the content of which was the same every Christmas Day. Until it wasn’t. The life-changing phone call wasn’t from Drummond, but about him. Charlie got word that the old man had Alzheimer’s, had been found wandering in the streets of Brooklyn and needed his son to come collect him and find him suitable care — and quickly. With an outstanding debt of $23,000 owed to Russian loan sharks, Charlie schemed to put Drummond in a nursing home and then take control of his money. What Charlie didn’t anticipate when he began to set his plan in motion was that his father’s workaday life had been a cover all along. Soon after Charlie picked up Drummond from the Brooklyn streets, somebody blew up the old man’s house and the two barely escaped alive. The explosion was just the beginning of a high-speed, cross-country chase in which father and son have to evade ruthless CIA assassins all while trying to comprehend why they’re being targeted. Much to Charlie’s utter surprise, in the rare moments when Drummond can marshal his mind, the old man can hot-wire cars and throw a hell of a punch. His father, Charlie realizes, has always been more than a washing machine salesman. But it’s a long shot as to whether he can keep Drummond — and himself — alive long enough to find out who his father really is.
In addition to the remarkable story between the covers of the book, there’s a fairly remarkable story on the back flap of the dust jacket. It reads: "Keith Thomson is a former semipro baseball player in France, an editorial cartoonist for Newsday, a filmmaker with a short film shown at Sundance, and a screenwriter who currently lives in Alabama. He writes on intelligence and other matters for The Huffington Post."
He answered a few questions about Once a Spy and about his own story in an e-mail interview earlier this week.
BIRMINGHAM WEEKLY: Your dust-jacket bio reads like fiction, particularly the part about being a former semipro baseball player in France. How did you make the transition from the athlete’s life to the cartoonist’s life, then from the cartoonist’s life to the writer’s life?
KEITH THOMSON: Failing to make it past the semi-pro level in France dictated a career change. I loved drawing cartoons, especially at Newsday. But I preferred the picture’s equivalent, a thousand words, so I became a writer. I was also influenced to a certain extent by the three-movie screenwriting contract that TriStar offered me.
Which came first — writing about intelligence for The Huffington Post or doing the research for this novel?
Doubleday bought Once a Spy a few months before I wrote my first Huffington Post column, or any national security column. In writing for The Huffington Post, however, I met a wide array of members of the intelligence community, ranging from a temp at the National Security Agency to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and my experiences informed the manuscript during the editing process, facilitating an additional layer of verisimilitude, particularly with regard to the technology.
What interests you about the subject of intelligence?
More than anything, I think the men and women of the clandestine service are underappreciated.
What challenges did you (do you) face in developing sources? In other words, how do you get spies to tell you secrets?
Paramount in developing intelligence community sources is demonstrating discretion. If I were privy to secrets of the nature you’re suggesting, I would not be wise to acknowledge it.
As a kid (or even as a grownup), were you into spy movies and/or books that would be considered thrillers?
All of them.
The Week magazine has a feature I’ve always liked called “Six Books,” in which authors name six books that were important to them — either in their development as writers, as models in a given genre or simply as books they loved. Could you name six thrillers that mattered to you, either as you were writing this book or earlier in your writing/reading life? If not thrillers, any six books will do.
Agents of Innocence by David Ignatius (and all other Ignatius spy books)
The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
The Tears of Autumn by Charlie McCarrie
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Money for Nothing by Donald Westlake
The Brotherhood of the Rose by David Morrell
One of the things that amazed & delighted me about Once a Spy was your descriptions of all the gear & gizmos. Do you think of yourself as a gear-geek? Did you research any of these items by testing them yourself, or were they items that sources told you about?
I’m not mechanically inclined or any sort of gizmo-head. I own and have tested a camcorder that’s concealed in a key fob — there’s a similar device in Once a Spy. But not covertly — for the most part, that sort of activity violates illegal eavesdropping laws. The one spy gizmo I have used to any success was an iPhone lie detector app that uses technology similar to that of a polygraph, measuring stress levels in the subject’s voice. I was shopping for a new car and demonstrated the device to the dealer who had been asking what I did for a living. The blood drained from his face and he instantly dropped his asking price to what my internet research had led me to believe was the lowest I’d get, plus he told me about a $500 dealer incentive he could pass along. It was the first I’d heard of it.
Name your top three favorite spy gadgets/gizmos. Were there any plot twists that were shaped around putting a particular gadget or gizmo in Charlie or Drummond Clark’s hands?
Charlie and Drummond are only victims to spy technology, like the com-bat that hunts them in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The com-bat is real, a robotic micro-aerial vehicle covered in lifelike bat fur and features. With the realistic manner in which it flaps its wings, lands and perches, it can fool real bats, let alone men. It’s able to transmit what it sees and hears to you in real time, from miles away.
The com-bat is one of my top three favorite gizmos. The lie detector app is up there. And wine. You know, in vino veritas.
I know that part of your inspiration for the Drummond Clark character was the hypothetical situation of a CIA operative developing Alzheimer’s. What inspired you to make Charlie a guy that played the horses?
It fit the story. Horseplayers I have interviewed share a skill set with covert operations officers, primarily in terms of powers of observation and deduction. Also they are driven by the thrill of being right.
Birmingham-based author and Huffington Post contributor Keith Thomson will read from and sign copies of Once a Spy on Wednesday, March 10, at the Alabama Booksmith, 2626 19th Place South in Homewood. The free event starts at 6 p.m. For more information, call (205) 870-4242 or visit www.alabamabooksmith.com.
The first few chapters of the book are being serialized on The Huffington Post website; you can also download an excerpt from www.keiththomsonbooks.com.
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