Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Last Run, By Greg Rucka

By Jay Stringer

I'm still without a laptop, as anyone on my twitter feed will have noticed. About the only benefit of not having my machine is that I've been catching up on some reading. It's easy to forget how enjoyable it is simply to sit and read a book for a weekend.

The Last Run is a spy novel from novelist and comic book writer Greg Rucka. It came out late last year, but it's only now I've started to catch up with my reading list. It worked out for the best, because reading this with no distractions allowed me both to sink into it and to see how quickly I got through it. Once I started, I needed to finish.

But first, I'm going to infuriate you by not talking about the book.

Cable/Sky TV came to my home in the mid 90's. Our family got it for the sole reason that my dad wanted to watch the re-runs of DOCTOR WHO on UK GOLD every Sunday (and listeners to our podcast will already have heard the outcome of that.) What this meant was that I saw a lot of bad TV shows buried away on the afternoon schedules, both when I was supposed to be at school and when I wasn't.

I caught the terrible 80's remake of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. I caught the well intentioned SWAMP THING and some terrible spy action show that I think was based on ACTION MAN. Then, one day, I caught myself watching some strange, taught, riveting spy drama. The characters were well drawn, the dialogue was decent and the plotting was tense. I'd just been on a John LeCarre kick, and already blasted through Ian Fleming, and the show seemed to perfect blend of the two; it was the intelligence, character and realism of LeCarre married to the tight plotting of Fleming. I gathered from the title card at the commercial break that the show was called THE SANDBAGGERS. In the days before the Internet, I had no way of finding out more, and nobody I spoke to seemed to remember the show. But at the same time every day for a couple of months I got to see some damn fine British TV.

Years later I would learn that the first episode I saw was THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP, which is pretty much the peak of the show. It's ending haunted me for years, and kept the show alive somewhere in my memory, but once it's run was finished I never saw any repeats, never saw mention of it, and slowly it started to fade.

Flash forward. Early 2000's. I'm flicking through indie trade paperbacks in one of my local comic shops, and I pick up one called QUEEN & COUNTRY. It had a woman looking all moody in a trench coat on the cover, and was written by Greg Rucka, who's work I'd enjoyed in Batman comics. And then, in the foreword, Warren Ellis noted that the book was influenced by THE SANDBAGGERS. Bang. Done. Sale.

QUEEN & COUNTRY, I soon learned, was a fucking fantastic comic. The influence of THE SANDBAGGERS was there to see if you knew the show, but not in a way that got in the way of the story. It had a voice all of it's own, and some very compelling characters. The two 'stars' of the book were Tara Chace, a female secret agent, and Paul Crocker, the scheming head of operations for SIS. On and off, across about seven years, we got to see the adventures of Chace, as she ran around the world drinking, arguing, and getting shot at. This was perfectly balanced by the corridor warfare of Crocker as he fought against his bosses, his rivals, and the ever impending evil of bureaucracy.

Towards the end of the comics run, Rucka decided to explore the characters in a different format, and we got the first two QUEEN & COUNTRY novels. Which brings me to THE LAST RUN, the third novel.

And with all that exposition out of the way, you can now draw breath.

If you're new to the series, you're fine, you can still read this book and enjoy the hell out of it. There's nothing important to the book that you can't pick up in the book. Get it and dive right in. If you're an established fan, this story brings a lot of story arcs to a very satisfying close. This could be the end of the story, equally it could be the end of the first act of a bigger story, both would work.

Tara Chace is Minder One. The easy description is to say she's the "real world James Bond," but I don't really want to go there. Chace is a complex, wounded and very well written female protagonist, who just happens to be one of the best secret agents in the world. There is nothing glamorous about the life of a minder. They are blunt instruments. Firefighters. They are the pit bulls that are kept on a leash in the hallways of SIS, to be sent off at short notice to solve a crisis. They don't tend to live very long, but real danger to a spy in this world is not a gun, or a bomb, or a hollowed out volcano. It's the machinations of politicians, the whims of a cabinet under secretary, or the public relations concerns of a government. These are the things that are likely to leave a spy stranded, or dead, or inconvenient.

Chace had been a Minder for a decade. She's the best there is. But she's battle-worn and tired. She's nursing any number of injuries and, even worse for a spy, she has a baby daughter. Life is getting in the way. She decides she wants out, wants to push information across a desk and live something closer to a normal life, but the game chooses when you get to stop playing it.

A crisis brews in Iran, a decades old sleeper agent has woken up, and the British government won't accept anything less than their very best agent being sent in, even if she's not fit for the job.

What follows is a fast paced ride spy thriller, like LeCarre stripped down and speeded up. Things go wrong, things go right, then things go very wrong. And for Crocker, he has the fight of his career; how to balance his duty to the agent in the field with his duty to Queen & Country.

As a fan of Rucka's work, I can see changes in his writing. He still has the stripped back Hammett-esque prose, but he seems to be playing with a few extra words, trying to play with his established voice and shift gears a little. It's always interesting to see a writer trying new tricks, and he's pulled it off, not straying too far from what works whilst still shaking things up.

A minor quibble I've had with all three books is that they start with 'pre-operational briefings.' I understand why. In bringing an established comic book series across to novels, I can see that Rucka and the publishers would be concerned about filling in new readers on the back story. But I don't think they were necessary. I think all three books work just as well without them, and I would argue there's nothing in them that couldn't have been fitted organically into the story. But that's just a small issue, and I don't want to distract from telling you to buy this book.

Buy this one, or by all three, either way you'll have a great time. And if you are worried about the continuity, don't worry, I'll make it easy for you.

If you want to read the whole thing, start to finish, you can blast through the three collected volumes of the comic. All but the final story are set before the novels. I would recommend holding off on that final story until you've read the first novel, but that's the only bump in the road.

After reading the comics, you can then go straight ahead and pick up A GENTLEMANS GAME. It's the first novel and was chillingly prescient, dealing with a terrorist attack on the London underground.

The second book, PRIVATE WARS, really saw Rucka playing with things that perhaps couldn't have been done with the comic, and saw the characters really grow into their new format.

And then, of course, there' the cracking third book, THE LAST RUN, which brings everything to a dark and grisly head.

And I'm sure Greg Rucka wouldn't begrudge me a chance to also pimp THE SANDBAGGERS. It's just been given a shiny new release. It's a big outlay for a show you've never seen, but it's well worth it.


Dana King said...

I don't usually enjoy international espionage thrillers, and was less than thrilled when I was asked to review Rucka's PATRIOT ACTS a few years ago. Took me no more than a chapter to get over that. He has a knack for moving that kind of story along while not unduly stretching the readers suspension of disbelief. Or he does, and everything else is done so well you don't care. It could be either, but suffice to say Greg Rucka is the only person writing this kind of stuff today who can find a slot on my reading list. (Except for Le Carre, of course.)

Al Tucher said...

I'm a connoisseur of tough chicks, and Tara Chace is the toughest and yet the most plausible. I second Jay's recommendation.

I think Greg Rucka may have been influenced by Adam Hall's Quiller novels. The series was uneven, but the best of the books are still worth reading.