I’m a huge fan of Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country universe, a wicked fun combination of intrigue and adventure tailor-made for diehard spy fiction junkies. It’s an unlikely cross-media project: inspired by the old British television series The Sandbaggers, it took life first as a comic book before transitioning into novels, and then back again. It does an uncanny job of recapturing the twisty plots, political maneuverings, and old school spirit of The Sandbaggers, even as it updates the idea into a more contemporary action vehicle. (Why hasn’t Hollywood snapped this up yet, I wonder?)
The Last Run (2010) is the third Queen & Country novel, and easily the best, in my view: a quick, deftly plotted adventure. Once again the agent on point is Rucka’s superspy Tara Chace, somewhat older and wiser here, approaching the end of her field career. After nine years in the Special Section she feels she’s pushed her luck enough, and considers resigning her position as Minder One to take a less hazardous job in the Ops Directorate. Unfortunately for her, the brass upstairs have different ideas, and when a high-profile source in Iran contacts British agents in Tehran about defecting, a joint UK-US mission is mounted to lift him. Chace’s boss, the cantankerous Paul Crocker, doesn’t like the sound of it and tasks another agent for the job, but political pressure conspires to put Chace into the field one last time.
Will she succeed and retire from the Special Section, or will the mission kill her? Rucka keeps you guessing throughout in a brisk, slickly plotted page-turner, which deftly balances the front line action and contentious backstage politics essential to the Queen & Country vibe. It’s here, I think, that this novel trumps the earlier ones, especially the ultraviolent Private Wars, which felt lopsided toward the body count end of the spectrum. At a speedy 257 pages, The Last Run doesn’t pad, and doesn’t overplay either the violence or the politics, making it perhaps the most successful homage in the series, and truest to the spirit of The Sandbaggers. Chace and Crocker are as enjoyable as ever, and Rucka surrounds them with memorable, well drawn colleagues in the halls of SIS, as well as two other nicely handled viewpoint characters in Iran: an unlikely field agent named Caleb Lewis, and the cunning Youness Shirazi, director of Iranian counterintelligence. It’s a great fast read and a satisfying return to this fictional universe; if this really is the last run, it’s a high note to go out on.