With its Hitchcockian title and bountiful references to James Bond, Jeffrey Westhoff has written a fantastic YA spy thriller. Having recently read all the books in the Young Bond series, I found all the references Westhoff makes to Bond quite fun as it feels like a book written with the Bond fan community in mind. While anyone who enjoys the spy thriller genre will be pleased to read this book, the novel also stands on its own with its memorable characters, its present day European setting, and exciting chase and action sequences.
Westhoff’s protagonist, 15 year old Brian Parker from Wisconsin, seems like a kid I would have liked to have been friends with in High School. While on a European tour school trip with his school, Brian finds himself embroiled in a real life espionage plot involving a corrupt CIA official, a physicist’s daughter, and a number of dangerous criminals hell bent on preventing Brian from sharing what he finds out about their scheme. The story starts off innocently enough with Brian and his schoolmate chatting about their favorite fictional hero, Foster Blake, and playing a game of “Spot the Spy” in Lucerne, Switzerland. Brian’s idolization of “Foster Blake” is easily identifiable as Westhoff’s thinly-veiled appreciation of the James Bond franchise. Most Bond fans will appreciate the comparisons Brian makes between the “Foster Blake” novels and the movies, which serves to highlight Westhoff’s appreciation of both the literary and cinematic incarnations of the Bond franchise.
Brian encounters the “grey” man he had earlier spotted as a potential spy while off to find a German edition of a Foster Blake novel to complete his collection. This time, however, the man is stooped over after having been stabbed by a suspicious man Brian had just passed emerging from the dying man’s direction. The dying man’s cryptic final words serve as the impetus for Brian to summon all the knowledge and skill he’d gleamed from his love of Foster Blake and put it to use to evade capture on an adventure that takes him to so many different European locations it’s amazing Brian is even able to keep track of where he is. He also finds himself in more trouble than he bargained for at times because he’s such a spy buff. At one point Brian is told,
“You see, that’s why you’re in this mess, Brian . . . Because you use words like rendezvous and case officer. If you were another kid who spent all his time playing with his Xbox, I could have handed you off to the State Department and let them baby-sit you . . . But you had to have read these spy thrillers written years before you were born . . . You had to know too much about the spy game.”
Soon, Brian learns that even after escaping that he can’t exactly go to the authorities for help because his kidnappers happen to also be watching his family home in Wisconsin. With the very real threat to his family, he finds that the only thing to do is try everything he can to foil the villains. He finds himself getting chased by henchmen in Nice, Cannes, Toulose, the Pyrenees Mountains, Barcelona, and a military base in San Gregorio. Along the way he meets up with Larissa, the French teenage daughter of the scientist whose coveted prototype weapon prompted the conspiracy Brian finds himself involved in.
A lover of early punk rock bands like the Ramones, it’s easy to see why Brian takes an instant liking to Larissa as she becomes a willing partner in his perilous endeavors. The book becomes a lot more fun as it slows down to take advantage of its European setting with Larissa using the crypt at the Basilica of St. Sernin in Toulose as a temporary hideout. We also learn a little bit about the Comet Line, a trail in the Pyrenees Mountains where French Resistance fighters used to sneak Allied soldiers from France into Spain during WWII. Larissa even bears a similar surname to the female organizer of the Comet Line, Andree de Jongh.
While it seems at times like Brian and Larissa are constantly running, hiding, escaping, or plotting to evade henchmen, I actually appreciate the few quiet times where the action slowed down and Larissa talked about her background and her interests. If there’s any critique I have of the book is that I wish there was more time for these characters to just be safe long enough for them have more moments like they had in the Pyrenees before the villains caught up with them. Too often the characters find that just as they thought they could rest easy for a time, the villains seem to miraculously spring out from nowhere once again re-igniting the tension and adrenaline rush for the characters. I find that even with a story that hinges so much on chasing and action that the moments I often enjoy the most are when the characters have a chance to breathe a bit and talk freely without an immediate threat just around the bend.
I really enjoyed The Boy Who Knew Too Much and believe it to be a very impressive debut novel for Jeffrey Westhoff. His love of spy thrillers shines brightly throughout this book. I think young readers will like it, but I also believe that adult fans of spy thrillers will find that they share a certain kinship with Brian Parker. It’s not clear whether or not this is a one-off story or if Westoff plans to continue it as a series. I can certainly imagine how Brian Parker may find himself in a new set of dangerous circumstances where he might need to rely on his experience as a young spy again only next time he won’t need to recall the fictional adventures of “Foster Blake.” He’ll have his own previous experience to draw upon. Anyone who enjoyed the adventures of Young Bond as written by Charlie Higson should take note. Brian Parker of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin is a modern day Young Bond in training.
To purchase The Boy Who Knew Too Much:
The nook and kindle version are currently $2.99 while the paperback is currently $14.95.
Westhoff, Jeffrey The Boy Who Knew Too Much. Intrigue Publishhing LLC, 2015.