In Her Majesty's Boring Service

'Queen & Country' tracks a top-secret paper-pusher

Greg Rucka
A Gentleman's Game
Bantam

Tara Chace, the heroine of Greg Rucka's Queen & Country books, is a British secret agent, but she probably couldn't get past the maitre d' at James Bond's club. She's one of three "Minders": officers of the Special Operations division of British intelligence, assigned to top-secret dirty work. Their job is basically paper-pushing in a grim office, punctuated with flashes of people shooting at them. (Sometimes they're authorized to shoot back, but mostly they're not permitted to carry guns.)

If I have to put another Post-It on your file, you're in deep trouble: Office drone and special agent Tara Chace
Oni Press
If I have to put another Post-It on your file, you're in deep trouble: Office drone and special agent Tara Chace

A Gentleman's Game is the first Queen & Country novel, but the eighth book in the series; Queen & Country is also an ongoing comic book, collected in a series of graphic novels. The prose novel is set firmly in the timeline of the comics series, but it's set up so that readers who are new to the characters won't miss anything--although a couple of plot twists probably seem less dramatically appropriate without the years of foreshadowing that have led up to them.

As spy stories, the Queen & Country books are necessarily fairly heavy on plot, and A Gentleman's Game is exceptionally incident-crammed. It involves, among other things, a terrorist attack on the London underground, a British expatriate's transformation into a fanatical Wahhabist, a botched assassination in a mosque in Yemen, a prospective suicide bomber in Cairo, and a race against time to contact Chace before she mistakenly kills a CIA double agent in Saudi Arabia--as well as a couple of action-heavy set pieces. (There's a hugely entertaining passage in which Chace figures out how to ditch a dozen-odd tails in London's Paddington Station.) Rucka's prose style mostly keeps its head down and lets the action fly.

But the series as a whole has less to do with espionage-type adventure than with the slow encroachment of decay on Chace's psyche and her team's gradual strangulation by internal governmental politics. The first Q&C graphic novel, Operation: Broken Ground, opens with Chace's first assassination--not the first time she's killed someone, but the first time she's been specifically ordered to. It's her job and she's professional about it. But over the course of the series, as her body count mounts, the act clearly begins eating away at her. And the moral compromises inherent in secret-agent work multiply over time for the series' crisply rendered supporting cast, too.

Chace is brave, coolheaded, and enormously clever, a ponytailed patriot with an unshakeable sense of duty (hence the title of the series). She's also a wreck: bitter, defensive, and perpetually exhausted. What little sex life she has is mostly self-punishing sublimation. And she knows that death could come for her at any moment, from any direction. As she puts it in the first graphic novel, "It's not the bullet that has your name on it you have to worry about, it's all those other ones marked 'to whom it may concern.'" In the comics, one of the Minders dies in his sleep from an aneurysm while on vacation; another one suffers an inglorious end in the field when a truck rams his car.

Rucka has written all of the Queen & Country graphic novels, too, but each one has been drawn by a different artist, often in wildly different styles. The characters look fairly consistent, though, and most of Rucka's collaborators are pretty good at conveying the body language that's a big part of his comics writing. He's fond of silent sequences and dramatic reaction shots that say more than blocks of text ever could. It's actually sort of a shock to see the words keep coming in the prose novel: The protracted, heavy silences of the comics are important to their tone.

The first few graphic novels find Rucka and the artists struggling to get a handle on the characters and their environment. The series really hits its stride, though, with the fifth book, Operation: Storm Front, drawn with kinetic verve by Carla Speed McNeil. (She also writes and draws a self-published series called Finder--no relation to Rucka's earlier prose novel of the same name.) McNeil nails the look of the characters like nobody before her--especially Chace, who looks both ruthlessly efficient and utterly ground down--and she captures the mood of both the series' dingy white rooms and its sudden bursts of carnage.

As a spy thriller, A Gentleman's Game is a big juicy cartoon. The suspense is unrelenting, the plot barely lets up for a paragraph, and the bad guys are very, very bad. When one of them beats a four-year-old to death, we get the picture that there aren't exactly moral shades of gray here. And Rucka pushes Chace into the toughest spot she's ever been in: At one point she's being hunted down by her own government. The prose novel, even though it's self-contained, is a crucial part of the overall story, but its ethical clarity is almost at odds with the tone of the rest of the series. Queen & Country isn't about a secret agent kicking ass; it's about a good person doing her duty by becoming less good.

 
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