I’m normally not a fan of spy thrillers. They’re okay, but they’ve never held my attention for long. I’ve never even seen the Jason Bourne movies. So when Paul Blake’s back cover starts with “Alec Foster is no Jason Bourne,” I took an interest.
I’d met Paul Blake on Twitter and read a few of his short stories, but this was his debut novel. I’d first read the cover while giving input for the cover design (and since the design heeds my input, I’m going to pretend it was all my idea), and thought it would be worth a read.
I love it when I’m right.
As the blurb says, Alec Foster is not an action hero. He’s over fifty, long graduated from the movie-worthy stuff, now working behind a desk at the British embassy in Germany. One night, Alec gets a call from a contact, who tells him the German Prime Minister will be killed. Immediately, the contact is shot and Alec must scramble his way across Germany to get someplace safe, and hopefully save the PM, too.
But Alec’s been out of the game for too long. With no gun and sagging skills, Alec must mine his most-neglected resource: his friends. He must peruse the streets for old friends, lost loves, and new acquaintances if he ever hopes to get out of this alive.
Most spy thrillers focus on the action and tension. While those elements are present, Blake chooses to focus on the human aspect, and that’s what makes the book so refreshing and interesting.
After Alec got a desk job and suffered three losses, he vanished within himself. Suddenly forced back into the open, Alec must repair lost relationships. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s difficult, but it’s all so gosh darn interesting. You’re not just reading about a spy, you’re reading about a person.
This sounds like a distraction from the plot, but it actually enables the spy stuff, too. Once he’s oiled his rusty people skills, Alec is able to read his enemies and trick, deceive, and dismantle them. Alec’s job is about information, which is about people skills, so these are what drive the plot forward, not Taken-style antics.
Speaking of Taken, I do like how the book doesn’t just throw Alec back into shape. His age and neglect cause him to make unpredictable moves that keep him alive, such as falling asleep on the bus and missing his stop, or visiting a strip club desperate search of an old friend. Nobody can figure out his movements, and Alec can’t quite regain his edge, so this borderline funny scenario actually creates more tension than a story about an expert might. You really never know what’s going to happen.
WHAT NEEDED WORK
As much as I love the human aspects, there is one relationship which does manage to weigh down the story: Alec’s reunion with Claudia. There’s a good story there, and Claudia’s important to the story, but the pacing begins to slither whenever these two get together. There’s far more flirting and teasing than there needs to be, especially when Alec is trying to get to the Embassy for his own safety and the German PM’s.
It’s particularly baffling when Alec takes Claudia out on a date. I understand they’re reconnecting, but isn’t there danger afoot? Aren’t lives in danger? Shouldn’t the mission come first?
Another weaker point is the ending. It’s not bad in and of itself, but it isn’t as strong as other elements and only loosely ties into the grander narrative. Still, it does provide Alec with one last test of his physical and personal skills with a realistic ending, even if it’s not the most exciting.
While the pacing can slow down and the ending isn’t quite as exciting as I’d hoped, A Young Man’s Game is still a fun read and a unique secret agent story. I liked following Alec Foster as he tried to shake off the cobwebs of his personality and do in his fifties what he failed to do in his prime.
Final verdict? 7/10: A good story, I can easily recommend it.
NOW GO READ:
You can buy A Young Man’s Game on Amazon.
CONTENT GUIDE (for those who care)
Sexual Content: 8/10–A few strip clubs, but only one surprisingly detailed sex scene.
Violence: 7/10–Spy thriller stuff.
Language: 6/10–A few words, nothing too terrible or frequent.
Substances: 5/10–Lots of drinking, but part of Alec’s character growth.
Mature Themes: 7/10–Pub crawls, strip clubs, international warfare, it’s not kid stuff.
OVERALL: Hard PG-13 or light R.