Who doesn’t love a thriller set in the often-paranoid world of spies, where nothing is quite as it seems to be?
Author Keith Yocum’s “Valley of Spies” (Time Tunnel Media, 2019) has been named to Kirkus Review’s 2019 prestigious list of Best Indie Mysteries, Crime Stories and Thrillers.
“Valley of Spies” is the third book in the trilogy that began with “Color of Blood,” and continued with “A Dark Place.” All three feature Dennis Cunningham, who has retired from the CIA, and his girlfriend Judy White, who is with the Australian Federal Police. “Valley of Spies” opens in Western Australia.
It is sometimes observed that journalists make great novelists. Yocum fits the bill. After he earned a master’s degree in journalism, he worked at a stringer for the Patriot-Ledger before getting a job at a The Tab. He eventually started his own newspaper, News West, that served 14 towns west of Boston. That paper was bought by a competitor, and Yocum went to work at the Boston Globe as a copy editor, later moving to boston.com. His final job before he retired was with the New England Journal of Medicine.
Yocum’s first novel was “Daniel,” a mystery set in Vietnam. That was followed by “Titus,” a mystery set in the Civil War era and inspired by the story of his great-grandfather, John W. Yocum, a Union soldier captured at the Battle of Gettysburg.
These books were followed by the trilogy. Yocum has worked to make each of the three books a stand-alone novel. Or, if you prefer, you can read them in order. The title of “Color of Blood” is from a line from the poem “Insensibility” by the WWI poet Wilfred Owen. Owen was killed in action in 1918, one week before the Armistice. Owen’s poetry runs through “Color of Blood.”
“You can drop things into stories that you like,” Yocum said during a telephone interview last week. As well as the poetry of Owen, Yocum is a fan of the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
“Valley of Spies” opens with Dennis in extremis in a hospital. All we know—and all that Dennis knows—is that he arrived there naked and with no identification. Does Dennis even know his own name?
We flash back to 16 days earlier, when Dennis is enjoying a round of golf in Western Australia’s winter. After the game, in the clubhouse, Dennis notices a couple of men at another table. Dennis is certain they’re CIA agents. His old life is reaching out to him. Dennis balks, but he soon receives his mission, looking into the puzzle of a CIA psychologist’s disappearance. His investigation takes him to New Zealand, Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas as he tries to fulfill his assignment in the given time—14 days.
“Imagine a therapist who sees people in the CIA,” Yocum says. Mixing the extreme secrecy of CIA agents with mental health issues is an intriguing idea. What can an agent properly say to get help? And how are the therapist’s notes stored? Both Yocum’s wife Denise and his sister Kolleen Martin are licensed psychologists who consulted with him on the book.
A chunk of the novel takes place in Dennis’s adopted home, Australia. When writing about Australia, Yocum knows what’s he’s describing as his mother was a native of Perth. Yocum compares his parents’ romance and marriage to a black and white movie of the 1940s. During WWII his father was an American submariner who took sick. His mother was his nurse in an Australian military hospital. They married in 1944. The family moved around a bit, living in California, Panama Canal Zone, Northern Virginia and Australia, where Yocum attended a Christian Brothers boarding school and played rugby. Yocum graduated from college and graduate school in the D.C. area. While living in the Boston area he and his family began coming to Chatham about 35 years ago, and have now retired here.
Whatever Yocum publishes next will have a strong female character, as his previous novels do. Denise Yocum is one of her husband’s early readers and he says she would not allow a weak woman to be a character in one of her husband’s books. For “Valley of Spies” Yocum was also aided by an Australian detective. A Las Vegas detective also read portions of the manuscript to ensure that Yocum got everything right in that city.
Part of writing fiction is the old adage of writing about, “connecting with” what you know. But, Yocum says, you also “disconnect. You have to sit down and get your brain creating stories.”
The Cape is “a great place to write, especially in the winters,” Yocum says. “The Cape is a place for creative people to thrive.” He has just finished his sixth novel, actually a novel that he wrote 10 years ago that he has rewritten and that he will release within the next six months. Will the Dennis Cunningham trilogy turn into a quartet? Possibly, says Yocum. He is also planning a spy book set in the Panama Canal Zone of his youth where he was accidentally teargassed as a second grader during a 1958 riot.