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Book Club Kits: Once a Spy

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Book Summary

Drummond Clark was once a spy of legendary proportions.  Now Alzheimer’s disease has taken its toll and he’s just a confused old man who’s wandered away from home, waiting for his son to fetch him. 
When Charlie Clark takes a break from his latest losing streak at the track to bring Drummond back to his Brooklyn home, they find it blown sky high—and then bullets start flying in every direction.  At first, Charlie thinks his Russian “creditors” are employing aggressive collection tactics.  But once Drummond effortlessly hot-wires a car as their escape vehicle, Charlie begins to suspect there’s much more to his father than meets the eye.  He soon discovers that Drummond’s unremarkable career as an appliance salesman was actually a clever cover for an elaborate plan to sell would-be terrorists faulty nuclear detonators.  Drummond’s intricate knowledge of the “device” is extremely dangerous information to have rattling around in an Alzheimer’s-addled brain.  The CIA wants to “contain” him--and so do some other shady characters who send Charlie and Drummond on a wild chase that gives  “father and son quality time” a whole new meaning.
With Once a Spy, Keith Thomson makes his debut on the thriller stage with energy, wit, and style to spare.

Discussion Questions

1)      Is Charlie a sympathetic character, or is he to blame for his debt and resulting predicament?

2)      Horseplayers love numbers and know the odds are 99-1 against them.

a.       So why do they bet?

b.      What do horseplayers and spies have in common?

3)      If a man like Drummond is a Liability to national security every time he sets foot outside his house or talks to a stranger, what is the government’s responsibility?

4)      What do you think really happens to the spies – or Americans with valuable secrets in their heads when they lose control of their minds?

5)      To what extent is sacrifice a theme in Once a Spy?

6)      If you were a spy what would you tell your family?

7)      How do Drummond and Charlie change in the course of Once a Spy? Do they help each other change?

8)      If you found yourself targeted by government-deployed assassins, what would you do?

9)      Compare and contrast: Buddy/father-son adventure stories with love stories.

10)   What questions would you ask if you were compiling a list of discussion questions about Once a Spy?

About the Author

Keith Thomson has been a semi-pro baseball player in France an editorial cartoonist for Newsday and a screenwriter. Now a resident of Alabama, he writes about intelligence and other matters for The Huffington Post. His novels include Once a Spy, a New York Times Best Seller, Twice a Spy and Pirates of Pensacola.

Author Interview

BIRMINGHAM WEEKLY: Your dust-jacket bio reads like fiction, particularly the part about being a former semipro baseball player in France. How did you make the transition from the athlete’s life to the cartoonist’s life, then from the cartoonist’s life to the writer’s life?

KEITH THOMSON: Failing to make it past the semi-pro level in France dictated a career change. I loved drawing cartoons, especially at Newsday. But I preferred the picture’s equivalent, a thousand words, so I became a writer. I was also influenced to a certain extent by the three-movie screenwriting contract that TriStar offered me.


Which came first — writing about intelligence for The Huffington Post or doing the research for this novel?


Doubleday bought Once a Spy a few months before I wrote my first Huffington Post column, or any national security column. In writing for The Huffington Post, however, I met a wide array of members of the intelligence community, ranging from a temp at the National Security Agency to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and my experiences informed the manuscript during the editing process, facilitating an additional layer of verisimilitude, particularly with regard to the technology.


What interests you about the subject of intelligence?


More than anything, I think the men and women of the clandestine service are underappreciated.


What challenges did you (do you) face in developing sources? In other words, how do you get spies to tell you secrets?


Paramount in developing intelligence community sources is demonstrating discretion. If I were privy to secrets of the nature you’re suggesting, I would not be wise to acknowledge it.


As a kid (or even as a grownup), were you into spy movies and/or books that would be considered thrillers?


All of them.


The Week magazine has a feature I’ve always liked called “Six Books,” in which authors name six books that were important to them — either in their development as writers, as models in a given genre or simply as books they loved. Could you name six thrillers that mattered to you, either as you were writing this book or earlier in your writing/reading life? If not thrillers, any six books will do.


Agents of Innocence by David Ignatius (and all other Ignatius spy books)

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum

The Tears of Autumn by Charlie McCarrie

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Money for Nothing by Donald Westlake

The Brotherhood of the Rose by David Morrell


One of the things that amazed & delighted me about Once a Spy was your descriptions of all the gear & gizmos. Do you think of yourself as a gear-geek? Did you research any of these items by testing them yourself, or were they items that sources told you about?

I’m not mechanically inclined or any sort of gizmo-head. I own and have tested a camcorder that’s concealed in a key fob — there’s a similar device in Once a Spy. But not covertly — for the most part, that sort of activity violates illegal eavesdropping laws. The one spy gizmo I have used to any success was an iPhone lie detector app that uses technology similar to that of a polygraph, measuring stress levels in the subject’s voice. I was shopping for a new car and demonstrated the device to the dealer who had been asking what I did for a living. The blood drained from his face and he instantly dropped his asking price to what my internet research had led me to believe was the lowest I’d get, plus he told me about a $500 dealer incentive he could pass along. It was the first I’d heard of it.

Name your top three favorite spy gadgets/gizmos. Were there any plot twists that were shaped around putting a particular gadget or gizmo in Charlie or Drummond Clark’s hands?

Charlie and Drummond are only victims to spy technology, like the combat that hunts them in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The com-bat is real, a robotic micro-aerial vehicle covered in lifelike bat fur and features. With the realistic manner in which it flaps its wings, lands and perches, it can fool real bats, let alone men. It’s able to transmit what it sees and hears to you in real time, from miles away.


The com-bat is one of my top three favorite gizmos. The lie detector app is up there. And wine. You know, in vino veritas.


I know that part of your inspiration for the Drummond Clark character was the hypothetical situation of a CIA operative developing Alzheimer’s. What inspired you to make Charlie a guy that played the horses?


It fit the story. Horseplayers I have interviewed share a skill set with covert operations officers, primarily in terms of powers of observation and deduction. Also they are driven by the thrill of being right.