We think we know what an espionage thriller is—a suspenseful story that keeps us on the edge of our seats, takes us to fascinating global locations, plays upon some actual existing international intrigue, and considers themes of betrayal, loyalty, passion and justice. It tends to follow a hero who rights a wrong or prevents an attack. This hero is often a spy, and almost always a man.
But what if things were different? What if the espionage thriller switched things up? What if it merged with another genre, or the old tropes were turned on their head? These are questions that I, as a reader and writer of spy novels, ask myself all the time. Increasingly, I’m finding I’m not the only one. Other writers are also rethinking the genre, and these twists add more thrills.
In “Boardroom M,” Gretchen Kirkpatrick offers up the antihero Misha Campbell, a woman with a marriage on the rocks and a career in shambles, in a novel that’s a merger of the espionage thriller and the psychological thriller. As such, “Boardroom M” is more mind game than mission. Right from the start, Misha is stuck in some sort of trap or web she can’t understand. Neither she nor the reader is sure of the mission, or even if there’s a mission. In this confusion, there is an element of Robert Ludlum’s famous fictional spy Jason Bourne (though Bourne was physically strong and well-trained, whereas Misha is athletic but less superhero-y). Rather than taking steps to foil the enemy, Misha must first figure out who the enemy is. The protagonist’s uncertainty is unsettling, but it adds to the suspense, and who’s to say it’s not realistic? Perhaps more often than not spies don’t feel in control.
I enjoyed Kirkpatrick’s inclusion of cultural touchstones from "Casablanca" to "Doogie Howser" to Anais Nin, and "Grey’s Anatomy." When Misha asked herself, “Why didn’t the movies ever show James Bond repeating in his head, ‘Please don’t let me die today?’,” I thought, ah, well, because he was a Cold War character, when things were more clear cut (or at least we pretended they were). Through elements like this, Kirkpatrick played well with the evolution of U.S. history and the perennial debate over the role of the American spy services.
A review of “Boardroom M” would not be complete without noting that there is an LGBTQ aspect to this book, but if I say too much, I’d create spoilers. Suffice to say the diverse characters add depth to the novel, and freshness to the genre.
Subtly including social commentary, Kirkpatrick makes a number of satisfying jabs at the quagmire of university politics and the corporatization of the clandestine services—reducing the fate of the world to an equation. There’s a dash of the souring of the American Dream as well: “Does it taste of middle-class dreams that lead to other middle-class dreams? Not moving up in status but managing to finish college all the same?” asks Misha at one point. At another, Misha questions her friends in Berkeley, thinking “the whole hipster love of the past was yet another fake, classist thing. Like they know what it means to be poor because they once bought a Miller High Life for a local tradesman, while they were getting fucked up on top-shelf liquor.” And Kirkpatrick’s mockery of the boring office assistant job, as seen through the character Harper, was spot on.
If you like talk of kinky sex (or scenes with kinky sex), you’ll love the first few chapters, but I prefer a drier novel in this regard, so at first I almost put it down. I kept fearing such scenes would consume the whole project, perhaps as a gimmick to sell more books. I also kept wondering why Misha would go along with her friend Jeff in these (and other) activities, obediently following his directions. But Misha seemed as confused as I was, so I ended up wanting to see if she would figure it out. In the end, I’m glad I stuck with it, as the reasons for the plot points and character development became clear, and Kirkpatrick brought everything around.
There were a few editorial glitches that threw me off. A reference to the “West Village” confused me, for example, and made me wonder if a previous iteration of the book (or chapter) took place in New York rather than DC. At another point, Misha wrote a long (long!) list on a napkin, which came across to me as far-fetched. She could have jotted her notes down on a regular piece of paper or a paper bag, and I wouldn’t have thought twice. At one point, Misha had a phone on her, which would have allowed her to be tracked, and so she probably should have ditched it a bit before.
However, as a fellow indie author, I don’t judge such snags too harshly. It would have been easy for a big publishing house with its team of editors to fix these glitches, but indie authors are often on their own or dependent on friends and writers’ groups. The more I read indie novels, the more I find small foibles charming. Rather than “mistakes,” I see them as indicators of the real people who are behind them, the absence of the machine—just what Kirkpatrick is railing against.
It’s fascinating to ponder what parts of the author are portrayed in each character they conjure up—after all, every character is the author, in a way. How and why did they end up telling the story the way that they do? I kept wondering how Kirkpatrick came up with Misha. In her bio, Kirkpatrick describes herself as “a daydreamer with a rich background of imaginary professions from dinosaur veterinarian to spy,” so we don’t really know if she has any sort of government or intelligence work in her background, even though she basically says she doesn’t. Still, by the time I finished the book, I was convinced there was some personal experience there—enough of it rang true that I felt like at least someone in Kirkpatrick’s family had been in the CIA (or maybe high-level military). The part about the “go bag” felt so personal. If I had to guess, I’d say it was her father.
Overall, this is a really fun read with the right amount of snark and social commentary embedded in an absorbing plot.
(DISCLAIMER: I don’t know Kirkpatrick or anybody who knows her; I found this book by combing through the internet and my social media feeds for espionage novels by women indie authors; I paid for this book, and I am not a reviewer for any sort of service.)