Robert Penbrooke’s The Quebec Affair represents a promising entry into the thriller field for the debut author, whose well-researched plotting propels the work to a satisfying conclusion.
John Thurmond is a former Canadian citizen who decides to join the US Army when he disagrees with Canada’s foreign policy related to China. Because of his Canadian citizenship, he is recruited into the CIA from the army in 1971. John’s first mission takes him to China, where he poses as a Canadian journalist in order to acquire Russian and Chinese nuclear information. Stealing photo negatives related to important developments in nuclear physics from a Russian scientist, his identity is compromised, and John is forced to flee to Cambodia with the negatives.
The Khmer Rouge are just beginning to terrorize the country and John must escape a country that is falling apart. He befriends a French Colonel who has a better chance of getting the negatives safely out of the country and hands them off before attempting to make his way out on foot through the jungle. John is captured and tortured by the Russians, but he eventually escapes and manages to make it back to his family in Canada. When he calls to check in with his CIA contact, however, he discovers that his department has been closed for 10 months.
Twelve years after he was first recruited, John is a lawyer with a wife and child, but his failed mission still haunts him. When he finally reaches the officer who recruited him into the CIA, he is determined to see it through. Penbrooke sets up a fascinating plot with compelling motivation, but occasionally gets lost in unnecessary detail. While dialogue occasionally veers toward the cartoonish, Penbrooke does a great job of sustaining tension and keeping things unpredictable.
Several emotion heavy subplots add to characterization: for instance, through the course of the mission, John is reunited with the son of his family’s tenant farmers whom he grew up alongside, only to have a brutal falling out with. These elements add depth, but fail to coalesce into more than mere diversions from the main action. Penbrooke’s novel suffers from the sheer number of central characters and the introduction of too many new characters, so there just isn’t enough room to develop them all sufficiently. However, it is nevertheless a compelling read. Overall, Penbrooke’s intricately plotted first thriller is a page-turner and shows promise, despite a lack of character focus. Readers looking for a fresh thriller will enjoy the novel’s unique settings and research.