Once a Spy: A Novel
Drummond Clark was once a spy of legendary proportions. Now Alzheimer’s disease has taken its toll and he’s just a confused old man who’s wandered away from home, waiting for his son to fetch him.
When Charlie Clark takes a break from his latest losing streak at the track to bring Drummond back to his Brooklyn home, they find it blown sky high—and then bullets start flying in every direction. At first, Charlie thinks his Russian “creditors” are employing aggressive collection tactics. But once Drummond effortlessly hot-wires a car as their escape vehicle, Charlie begins to suspect there’s much more to his father than meets the eye. He soon discovers that Drummond’s unremarkable career as an appliance salesman was actually a clever cover for an elaborate plan to sell would-be terrorists faulty nuclear detonators. Drummond’s intricate knowledge of the “device” is extremely dangerous information to have rattling around in an Alzheimer’s-addled brain. The CIA wants to “contain” him—and so do some other shady characters who send Charlie and Drummond on a wild chase that gives “father and son quality time” a whole new meaning.
With Once a Spy, Keith Thomson makes his debut on the thriller stage with energy, wit, and style to spare.
In the National Security Agency’s cipher-locked Tordella Supercomputer Building, hard drives are capable of storing upwards of a petabyte of data, equal to about 20 million four-drawer filing cabinets of top secret paper. When the time comes to destroy that information, the drive is first put in a $44,000 degausser that completely erases the magnetic memory. Then, for good measure, the drive is inserted into a $7,000 “Physical Hard Drive Destroyer” where it is bent, broken, and smashed. Although expensive, the entire operation can be accomplished in less than a minute.
Across the Potomac River at CIA headquarters, however, getting rid of information presents a far more difficult problem; the most sensitive data is stored not in hard drives, but in human brains. So what happens when one of those brains, belonging to a top agency spy, comes down with Alzheimer’s?
That is the problem the agency is having with Drummond Clark in Keith Thomson’s enjoyable spy novel, Once a Spy. Uncertain of what the former spy may do, the agency’s only way to ensure the security of the information in Drummond’s mind is to put him through their own version of the NSA’s Physical Hard Drive Destroyer: bend, break, and smash him.
Caught in the middle is Drummond’s gambling-addicted son, Charlie, who has always known his father not as a stealthy CIA officer, but as a down-beat, work-a-day appliance salesman. He slowly starts to see his father in a different light, however, after someone blows up his Brooklyn apartment and Drummond begins engaging in some unique tradecraft, not common to appliance tradesmen. Soon, it’s not just the CIA that wants to put Drummond and Charlie in the shredder, but others, leading to an elaborate father-son escape with many false turns, unexpected detours, and the possibility of a very dead end. Once a Spy is a wild ride. —James Bamford