The Rhythm Section by Mark Burnell

The world will long remember the dramatic events from August to December 1991, when the Soviet Union—the great antagonists to Western Democracies—collapsed under its own weight. I was living in Denver at the time. Since I didn’t own a television and didn’t subscribe to the newspaper, I sheltered myself away from world events. But I remember going to work one November night and listening to my coworkers talking about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Did the wall really fall? The front page of the morning’s newspaper showed Berliners destroying the wall with sledgehammers and mattocks. Some worked at it with hammer in chisels. We had won the Cold War.

For writers of spy thrillers, these events placed them in a particularly bad bind. With the great antagonist destroyed, who do you make the bad guys in your future novels? With the rise of international terrorist organizations, spy thrillers and their writers soon found their new archenemies. In 1999, a British writer named Mark Burnell joined the lists of those writers by writing The Rhythm Section.

The Rhythm Section is the first of Burnell’s Stephanie Patrick novels. Born in England, Burnell grew up in Brazil. He now lives in England, where he has written several books. Beyond that, I have found little information about him. He’s a middle-tier writer whom I suspect will become more famous because, in February, the movie adaptation of The Rhythm Section will be released. Reed Morano directed it, and it’ll star Blake Lively as Stephanie Patrick. Seeing a trailer for the movie motivated me to read the novel. The movie looked exciting, and as readers to my blog know, I always prefer to read the book before seeing the movie. It was a similar motivation last year that prompted me to read Jason Matthews’ Red Sparrow (2013)  and seeing the movie starring Jennifer Lawrence. Enjoying that effort, I hoped to duplicate it with The Rhythm Section.

This is my last cigarette. I draw the flame to the tip and inhale deeply. Proctor looks cross, as he always does when I smoke, but then he doesn’t know that I’m giving up. It’s a secret that will gradually betray itself, hour by hour and day by day.

It is almost exactly a month since Procter collected me from Warren Street Undergound station. I have lived with him since that night and I have started to change. Giving up cigarettes is a part of that process. A symptom. 

Like Matthews’ Red SparrowThe Rhythm Section tells the story about an everyday woman becoming a skilled spy. Despite this similarity, they are two very different stories with two very different characters serving as the protagonist. Since Putin’s Russian had become another great antagonists to western democracies, Red Sparrow reads like a traditional Cold War spy thriller; its spy-versus-spy contest held me tense in both the novel and the theater. It tells the story of well-trained spies working for well-funded intelligence agencies. It’s the story about state players using espionage to gain an advantage over each other. 

With its antagonists belonging to a terrorist conspiracy, The Rhythm Section focused on non-state players. Even Magenta House, the informal name for the informal intelligence agency where Stephanie finds herself working, feels more like a rogue player than a government-condoned operation. It is the absence of officialdom that makes The Rhythm Section and its characters feel so appropriate to our time and the international conflicts it inspires. I liked Dominika Egorova, the protagonist of Red Sparrow, but I never liked Stephanie Patrick. I didn’t like her personality, her emotional state, her moral mindset. Though a beautiful woman, her description tells me that I wouldn’t even be superficially attracted to her. I have zero desire to meet her. But despite not liking her, she feels modern. She feels like a contemporary spy. Dominika, a more likable character, reads like an anachronism. Stephanie is the lost soul we often encountered in the modern world. 

Lost soul is an apt description of Stephanie Patrick, at least how she appears in The Rhythm Section. (Since I haven’t read the other three novels in the series, I have no idea how she matures as a character.) In comic book terms—since so much of what we do these days is influenced by comic books and comic books movies—The Rhythm Section is an origin story. As the novel begins, we meet her as a London prostitute. A personal tragedy incited this fall from grace. Learning the truth behind that tragedy begins the arc that breaks her free from this fall. By the novel’s end, she’s a skilled spy and assassin. Still lost, though. In a different way, yes, but she is still a lost soul. 

Originally, the Petra Reuter legend had been created as an open-ended option, one of a set of four artificial identities, two male and two female. Stephanie became Petra because she was the closest physical match of the two female legends. Of the four legends, Petra was the only one that had been activated. It was strange to think that while Stephanie had been destroying herself, her next life was gradually and painstakingly being manufactured by Magenta House. 

A theme in the novel, and the driving force of her emotional arc, deals with identity. Who is Stephanie Patrick? Other people might know, but she has no clue. Is she Lisa, the prostitute, or is she Petra, the international assassin, or is she Marina, another covert cover. Or is Stephanie Patrick, as she was born to be? Where does one of these identities end and the other begin? What personality traits belong to which name? This character feels realistic to me. No doubt, she would be exactly the type of person who would join the covert war against terrorism. People with better grasps of who they are and what they want would avoid the risky decisions Stephanie makes, but it’s searching for her identity and her place in the world that drives Stephanie. With nothing left to lose, she’s willing, even eager, to join the high-stakes game against terrorists. 

Burnell deals with these shifting identities by titling the sections with the character she most identifies within that section, so you have “Stephanie’s World” and “Petra’s World, etc. The point-of-view is third-person, but Burnell interlaced several first-person narrations from Stephanie’s point-of-view. 

Published before September 11, 2001, The Rhythm Section reads like a prophecy we failed to heed. In his afterword to the 2018 edition, Burnell talked about the 9-11 attacks and about the similarities between the terrorist plot he describes in The Rhythm Section to 9-11. Though not a coincidence, there’s nothing mysterious about the similarities. Burnell’s based his terror plot on the 1995 failed Bojinka plan. The hijackers of 9-11 also based elements of their plan on Bojinka. Since 9-11, we have learned how intricate and well-financed the terrorist networks are. Burnell did a great job of recreating that intricacy in The Rhythm Section. He even mentioned Bin Laden in the novel, as a backdrop character, to help ground the story in reality. 

Because of 9-11, the emotions the attack still evokes in me, and the knowledge of what has happened since it—two United States wars, one we’re still fighting almost twenty years later—this was a hard novel to read. I’m glad I read it, though. I had doubts about it during the first half of the book, but the final half gave me the spy thriller I wanted it to be.  

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