Keith Thomson mixes abundant plot twists, humor, and breathless action in his spy-novels-with-a-difference. Once a Spy and the just-released sequel, Twice a Spy, tell the story of Drummond Clark, a seemingly ordinary man whose humdrum life provided cover for his activities as a spy, and his ne’er-do-well son Charlie, who is catapulted into a life on the run when he tries to confine his aging, ill father to a nursing home.
Thomson is a former semi-pro baseball player in the French league, an editorial cartoonist for Newsday, and a filmmaker who exhibited a short film at the Sundance Festival. He lives in Alabama and writes about national security and other topics for the Huffington Post.
SP: When they see the words funny, spy, and gadgets in a book review, a lot of people will immediately think of Maxwell Smart. In a cover quote for Twice a Spy, Christopher Reich calls you a cross between Carl Hiaasen and John le Carre. Do you think of your books as humorous spy stories with gadgets?
KT: Twice a Spy is relatively serious in tone, actually. The spy gadgets are all real. One of the principal characters, Charlie, the horseplayer, cracks wise a lot. Le Carré was more of an influence than “Get Smart.” I’ve heard my Huffington Post column referred to as “national security, with jokes.” That sort of writing style could be responsible the “le Carré meets Hiaasen” quotes. It’s an honor just to be compared to either of those writers.
SP: Which came first, the idea for the plot or the characters of Drummond Clark and his son Charlie?
KT: The idea for the plot came first. Based on a true story: I was once dating a young woman whose prior boyfriend took her home to Virginia for Thanksgiving. Sadly, Alzheimer’s disease had forced his father into retirement in his early sixties. The older man had managed office equipment manufacturing plants for IBM, in a slew of foreign countries. While living abroad, with his son soaking up cultures and languages en route to becoming a worldly sophisticate, the father demonstrated Archie-Bunker-level xenophobia, meanwhile going to great lengths to watch NFL broadcasts and procure six-packs of Budweiser. Always, he adamantly stuck to speaking English. Accordingly, on that Thanksgiving dinner in Virginia, the dozen friends and family members around the table were surprised when he began speaking French. Fluently. Taking in all the eyes big as plates, he switched to German. Evidently, xenophobic IBM plant manager and Bud Man had been cover. This story led me to wonder what the CIA does when its operatives lose the ability to retain important secrets.
SP: Your books have been praised for their cinematic detail. Do you consciously use screenwriting techniques in crafting your novels? Do you think that studying screenwriting would benefit other crime fiction writers?
KT: Good question. I’ve never thought about screenwriting techniques while writing novels. I can’t see how studying screenwriting would hurt novelists, unless it took time away from studying novel-writing.
SP: Is there actually such a thing as a “com-bat” – the surveillance device disguised as a bat that trails your characters in your first book? How much would it cost if I wanted to buy one for myself?
KT: Yes, I wrote a story about the com-bat for The Huffington Post . Cost — at least $1 million, though you can get a good starter drone for $40,000. The company Microdrone deployed one of its unmanned aerial vehicles to my reading at Books & Books in Coral Gables, FL, last year. This year I intend to bring a close-quarters-combat drone about the size of a bundt cake to my Twice a Spy readings, though I’m not sure yet how I’ll be able to travel with a scary-looking gizmo whose use is still prohibited by the FAA.
SP: Were you really a baseball player in France? I didn’t even know the French played baseball.
KT: I was fortunate to play in Paris. That said, if you are playing baseball in the French league, you ought to be thinking about another career. However, one player from the league who played a few seasons after I did, Jeff Zimmerman, made it to the Texas Rangers and the American League all-star team.
SP: Your background doesn’t include anything that would make you an expert on the world of spies and intelligence operations. How did you gain the knowledge to write your books?
KT: Research. Thanks to The Huffington Post, I have a lot of sources, ranging from a computer temp at the NSA to a director of the CIA.
SP: What are you working on now?
KT: A novel about a national security reporter who sticks his nose too far into one of his stories and gets into big trouble. Again, based on a true story. The new book has all new characters as far as I know, but I’m only about 50 pages in.