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Spy vs. Spy: DEAD DROP Has the Action

By Derek Gunn

From the action-packed prologue of an Israeli snatch attempt in Lebanon, this second novel in the Handler thriller series will have readers burning through the pages.

The book begins shortly after the tumultuous events in Woodward’s first novel, The Handler. We again meet up with divorced CIA case officers John and Meredith Dale. Meredith is tasked with discovering the potential payload of a re-designed rocket that could deliver a nuclear attack to Israel that is capable of bypassing their Iron Dome Air defense system. Time isn’t on her side. Preferring to keep her ex-husband out of her mission we again see our new favorite couple gravitate closer together as circumstances and necessity force them back together.

The US is desperate to complete nuclear negotiations with Iran, and Israel wants to find the lead Iranian scientist involved in the new rocket design, widening the chasm between the negotiators. Everyone is acting in their own interests, with Meredith and John caught in the middle.

Woodward handles the complex plot with flair, keeping the story moving briskly while still spending the time to draw his characters carefully. This is not an easy skill. Despite the world-saving missions, the protagonists also have emotions and real-world problems—this is what elevates this book above the norm.

M.P. Woodward

In DEAD DROP, it’s interesting and refreshing to see the complex and opposing views of the different Federal law enforcement agencies instead of just concentrating on the American viewpoint, Woodward excels in also showing Israeli and Iranian perspectives, complete with their related shades of gray. Woodward is a veteran of US Intelligence, and it’s obvious because of the knowledgeable and believable scenarios he writes for his characters. I haven’t seen the same confidence, skill, and ability in spy novels since Robert Ludlum.

He handles the action scenes brilliantly without going over the top; each scene leaves us breathless but not incredulous. This is rare, as many protagonists become superhuman in novels, able to perform fantastic feats that Superman would be proud of. But the political and intelligence maneuverings add an extra pensive element to the story.

Woodward is scheduled to appear at this year’s conference of the International Thriller Writers—ThrillerFest—this month, but The Big Thrill was able to catch up with him to ask a few questions.

How do you write? Do you have a ritual? Do you plan out every detail first or do you see where the story leads?

I start with a story at the 50-thousand-foot level. In a thriller, I’m trying to shine a light on a particular geopolitical problem, focusing on an angle that hasn’t necessarily made the news. From there, I think about how to dramatize it. What crisis could precipitate it blowing up? How can I raise the stakes along the way? How would taut professionals on both sides of the conflict really handle it? What personal struggles might they have? How might I create an ironic resolution?

Once I have those big ideas, I get down to the nitty-gritty of a rough outline and characters. That’s about all the planning I do. A lot of invention happens along the way when punching out the story.

The book is excellently paced. Have you written short stories to hone your craft?

Thank you. I haven’t written short stories as an exercise. However, over the years, I’ve had several unsuccessful novel-writing attempts where pacing was a fatal flaw. To overcome it, I studied movie screenplays. In a two-hour movie, the screenplay writer has to use clues to show how time and events are advancing. They have to do that succinctly and cleverly. If you pay very close attention to a movie, you can see how they’re explaining the timing to an audience. So, like a screenwriter, I came up with literary tools of my own to pace a story.

M. P. Woodward on a research trip to Tanzania for next book

I see you are scheduled to come to ThrillerFest this year. What are you looking forward to most?  

The thing I like most about ThrillerFest is meeting up with industry peers. It’s great to hear other perspectives on how to approach writing and the publishing business in general. This time, I’m also excited to participate in a panel about espionage. It should be a hoot because my Penguin Random House editor is going to be on the panel with me.

M. P. sailing in the San Juan Islands, research for the main character hero who sails

If you were given one paragraph to convince people to buy your novel, what would it say?

Beneath every news story, lurks a hidden drama. DEAD DROP exposes a deadly game of spy versus spy in the real-life shadow war between Iran, Israel, and the US. As geopolitical tensions rise to dangerous levels, the operatives will struggle with the morality of their missions. Across the intelligence battlefields of Beirut, London, and Tehran, this is ultimately a story about trust—among nations, agencies, spymasters…and former lovers.

In between work and writing, do you have any time to read? Who do you enjoy most?

When writing a novel, I usually try to stick to nonfiction research books that can help make my own work better. I try to set aside time for that. The journalism-as-drama genre has made nonfiction books much more enjoyable over the past decade, particularly when it comes to history. For current fiction, I like to read action thrillers by Mark Greaney, Don Bentley, David Ignatius, and Simon Gervais. I also enjoy the classic espionage tales from John le Carré, Ken Follett, Tom Clancy, and Frederick Forsyth.

M. P. Woodward at a book signing

What’s next?

I recently completed the third book in the Handler series, which I really enjoyed doing. It highlights a new, modern espionage arena that I don’t think many readers have seen before. It should be out next year.

I’m now working on a totally different stand-alone thriller about a compelling world event (no spoilers, sorry). It draws heavily from my own tech business and military intelligence careers. Writing this new stand-alone thriller has become my obsession, requiring tons of additional research. But man, what a ride.

DEAD DROP was released in May and deserves a spot high on your wish list. For more information, visit Woodward’s website at

Derek Gunn
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