Jack Beaumont – Dark Arena

Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2024
Cover design Design by Committee
Cover images Alamy, bigbookphoto.com, Andris Molygin

Jack Beaumont writes of the shadowland which is the world of the spy, the parallel reality of secrets, international and personal, that is the everyday life of those employed by our secret services.

Barbie spoke to Jack Beaumont about <em>Dark Arena</em>

It’s scary stuff and the more so for its verisimilitude. For, as a former spy with the French Secret Service (the DGSE), Jack writes from experience, albeit fictionalised to protect others.

In this book, he uncovers the machinations of various secret services across the world to manipulate politics and trade, particularly the supply of oil and gas. The time is contemporary and so we find ourselves questioning all that we have assumed about world affairs.

While there is the drama and violence of the spy genre here, the multiple identities and the constant danger of detection, what is especially strongly portrayed in this work is the effect of this work on not only the individual who undertakes it but on his family.

The importance of always adhering to the protocols of training is very clear in this story. A slight slip or deviation can result in extreme danger for the agent’s family and ultimately his or her own death. Even if the family survives, their life is ruined – they simply lose their identity and connections.

Their security is entirely in the hands of the agent and his capacity to always stick to what he has been trained to do. There is an incident at the beginning of this book that proves the point as darkly as can be imagined.

It’s difficult to allude to too much of the plot detail in this book without spoiling things for the reader. Suffice it to say that main character Alec de Payns is sent to hunt down an agent who is posting highly classified material against the Kremlin to embassies across Europe.

The hunt sends him to various locales, in each of which he must assume a separate identity. This matter of multiple selves is one of the psychological stresses for the spy – to have to be so many people and utterly be them means a loss of self.

The author is at pains to help us understand the bind in which the emotionally conflicted and traumatised spy finds himself. He cannot confide in anyone outside of the service because everything about his work is secret. On the other hand, if he avails himself of the psychological services in the organisation, he is bound to be side-lined and deemed to be unfit to work. He may be feeling paranoid, but the paranoia is to some extent real.

This is pacy, fluidly written fiction with plenty of action of the sort we have become accustomed to in the genre, but for me the deepest interest was in the personal. Alec is shown to have a family life resembling normality at times but the tensions in a marriage in which separate lives and values are played out must be extreme.

Parenting is very part-time and a huge burden falls on the partner, not merely in a practical sense but because of that parallel universe to which I alluded in the beginning. How can one have a relationship in which everything is a secret and in which one never knows or can know what the other is dong or thinking? Furthermore, the agent himself is always alert to the danger in which he puts his family simply by doing his job.

Jack Beaumont captures this world graphically. The book is detailed, the plot complex, the characters intriguing. We are aware that the hero is sometimes in the dark as much as we are as readers and that this is also true in the ‘real world’ of espionage. A partial truth is the best we can hope for.

While generations have grown up on the ‘shaken not stirred’ variety of spy fiction, Jack Beaumont presents a dark reality which one is not entirely convinced one wants to know about. If the job of the spy is to keep us safe, then perhaps it’s best we just allow that to happen and trust that it will.

The human cost, however, is immense. In accepting this as the only way to human salvation, we also accept that some people will be sacrificed for the benefit of others.

This is just one of the unanswerable moral questions raised in this book. We move well beyond adventure and derring-do here. We are asked to make a judgement call about the hazy lines between good and evil. Whilst action fans can ignore that perhaps, the reader of this book cannot.

And, of course, that is one of the great pleasures of reading such work. That and the knowledge that for some there is a way out.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy and to Jack for speaking with me about the reality of spying’s dark arena in which the rest of us do not have to live.