Greg Rucka’s A Gentleman’s Game (2004) is an espionage thriller based on—and crossing over with— his comic book series Queen & Country (2001-2007), which is a direct and loving homage to an old British television series called The Sandbaggers (1978-1980). The entire project has the feel of a pop culture, cross-media mash-up—for me, in the best possible way. Spies! Comics! Suspense! Addictive TV! Additionally, the Queen & Country universe manages to feel comfortably old fashioned and edgily contemporary at the same time, layering traditional Cold War mystique over a gritty, post-9/11 world. In short, this series pretty much couldn’t be more in my wheelhouse.
If you haven’t seen The Sandbaggers—and it’s kind of obscure—it’s a TV spy series set largely in the offices of the British SIS, and revolves around the Director of Operations and his Special Section, the “Sandbaggers” of the title, who are called upon to perform the foreign service’s most sensitive and dangerous missions. Though the episodes’ crises take place all over the globe, the show itself is largely centered on the halls of SIS headquarters and the British political world, where the Director of Operations, Neil Burnside, fights the Cold War on the home front, in sharp verbal duels with the espiocrats and politicians who control his agents’ fates. It’s incredibly low budget and extremely dialogue-driven, but the plots are twisty and engaging, and the performers—particularly Roy Marsden as the blunt, unforgiving, and whip-smart Burnside and Ray Lonnen as his affable, fearless head of section, Willie Caine—are in fine form throughout. For fans of dark, realistic, unglamorous espionage, I’d venture to say it should be required viewing.
Queen & Country borrows liberally from the entire Sandbaggers set-up, right down the organizational structure of its foreign intelligence service, and Rucka’s characters have obvious Sandbaggers counterparts—so much so that when reading the comics, I find myself hearing the actors’ voices in my head. The one exception is Tara Chace, the head of Rucka’s Special Section. Chace is Sydney Bristow by way of Alec Leamas: an ass-kicking, fearless super-spy on the one hand, and a bitter, clever alcoholic on the other. If there’s one thing that differentiates Q&C from Sandbaggers, it’s Chace—and if there’s a second, it’s Rucka’s tendency to venture out into the field more often than The Sandbaggers, with its minuscule budgets, could ever afford to do.
Which brings us, finally, to A Gentleman’s Game, a novel that bridges episodes of the comic book series with the story of a terrorist plot that takes place on British soil. This leads to a special operation of retaliation, which sends Chace on a series of risky, action-packed adventures across the Middle East. Meanwhile, Rucka’s Burnside-figure, Paul Crocker, works the halls and bureaucrats on the home front: the author staying true to his source material, even as he expands on it. Meanwhile the villainous terrorist perspective is seen through the eyes of a converted western Muslim named Sinan, whose fate is ultimately entwined with that of Chace and her allies.
I found it well written, deftly plotted, and thoroughly engaging stuff, sure to please fans of the comics and TV show it grew out of, and probably not a bad fit for newcomers who enjoy contemporary spy shows like 24 or Spooks. (An aside for viewers of Spooks, known as MI-5 in the U.S.: Peter Firth’s vicious Harry Pearce could easily be a direct descendent of Roy Marsen’s Neil Burnside on The Sandbaggers.) From time to time Rucka is perhaps too enamored of his protagonist, and the novel does display the occasional hoary old spy genre tropes—superhuman feats of violence, superhuman feats of lovemaking, etc.—but these are minor quibbles in what is otherwise a ripping espionage yarn. It left me wanting more, and fortunately there is a second novel out, which I definitely intend to add to my reading pile.