Jack Beaumont is not the real name of the author of The Frenchman, a book that itself is full of pseudonyms, nicknames and operational code names. Beaumont was, apparently, a member of the French secret service after a career as a pilot and has, since retiring, moved to Australia. Following in the footsteps of authors like Stella Rimington he has now poured his experience and knowledge into fiction. The result is The Frenchman a spy thriller which is much more interested in the spying than in thrilling but still manages, eventually, to do both.
A cold open sees agent Alec de Payns working Amin, a Pakistani engineer at an international conference. Unfortunately Amin has been made leading to a fairly harrowing torture scene. Two years later and de Payns is running another operation in Palermo and again it ends in tragedy. It looks like someone from the inside has betrayed the operation and de Payns is asked to keep his eyes open for a traitor. At the same time he is given a new operation in Pakistan involving biological weapons, an operation which might be striking close to home.
As noted above, The Frenchman is a book that is much more interested in spycraft than in being thriller. From losing a tail, to creating (and maintaining) a false identity, to undercover operations to emergency exfiltrations. Every step of de Payns’ process is set out which will probably be interesting for some but not particularly engaging. Besides a demanding job, de Payns also has a tricky work/life balance to navigate and is instantly suspicious of anyone who befriends his wife and children.
The irony is that the more the narrative sticks to realism the less engaging it is. There are plenty of tense moments, particularly when de Payns is in Pakistan. But it is only as the plan starts to become apparent and the mole is revealed that the tension really ramps up.
The Frenchman is, in the way of many thrillers, a disturbing reminder of how fragile our modern world is and how easy it might be upend the world order. It is a spy thriller that only an insider could have written – full of spycraft detail and a deep understanding of the workings of the security services. Some readers will absorb that detail but for others it is likely to get in the way of what might otherwise have been a great yarn.