Reviewed by Ian Lipke
To the ordinary reader the world of espionage is a world of mysterious characters, with extreme action and danger at every turn. Reading The Frenchman is an exciting experience that does little to dispel our preconceptions. The book’s structure is simple indeed. It consists of a series of episodes linked together by periods of briefing, and cameos at home with wife and child. Knowing as we do that Jack Beaumont was once an agent for the French Intelligence Service, makes the story appear more authentic.
The book has strengths. It is a rattling good story, delivered without fuss, evoking the intended response that this is a true account in the life of a secret agent. Interest level is maintained, and the reader finds it difficult to put the book down. The pace is not hectic, but it is dynamic and maintains a momentum that denies the reader any doubt to its authenticity. Jack Beaumont undoubtedly lived such a life as his character, Alec De Payns. Glamorous women and Plain Janes are both found within the pages of the novel, but there is no sex as the agent’s life depends on his keeping his mind exclusively on task.
Enjoyable as it is and authentic as it appears, there are aspects of the telling that reveal the undoubted lifestyle of the spy at the expense of the narration. The means by which De Payns keeps his existence secret from any possible enemy is told in extensive detail, each time the agent returns from a period in the field. He takes three to four pages to describe every step that he follows to ensure that he is not under surveillance. Although this adds to the authenticity of the experience, its constant repetition becomes trying to the reader.
Another perceived weakness in the telling is the often insertion of words that are either not English or jargon. An excellent example occurs on page 104, ‘Templar asked if he would be going into Islamabad to establish the équipement de ville, which was the design of the jeux de rendez-vous and points de passage obligés that the Company used to check for surveillance of their OTs when they were in the field’. We cannot automatically assume that the reader knows French, that jargon words such as ‘the Company’, OTs and ‘in the field’ will receive instant recognition. To give credit where it is due, the author does make an effort to explain jeux de rendez-vous.
Furthermore, the relationship that the agent shares with his wife is quite puzzling. There are several occasions where De Payns openly comments that he fully expects his wife to leave him, that their closeness will not continue given the stresses that his activities on behalf of the government places upon her. She reacts angrily when he is not home to help discipline their child and when he inevitably carries out an investigation into her new-found friends. She rarely knows when he will likely return home. She is in tears when it appears unlikely that he will be present at a graduation ceremony where she will receive her PhD.
Having loosed that volley of criticisms, I hasten to remind readers that this book is both enlightening and interesting. The dialogue is that expected of men with a common purpose. De Payns lives rough and speaks accordingly. ‘Holy fuck’ is much more suited than ‘Goodness me’. Beaumont’s characters reveal themselves in ways that suit their images:
Romy wasn’t one for emotional declarations. When she had found out she was expecting their first child, she merely smiled and said, We’re pregnant, then asked if he wanted the extra garlic in his mussels’ (178).
This is a book that will attract many readers who, in turn, will discuss it with an army of friends, potential readers. I have no hesitation in endorsing this tale as a fine read.
By Jack Beaumont
Allen & Unwin
$29.99; 400 pp