Discussion Guide: The Spy Who Jumped Off the Screen

What would happen if a business tycoon and his protégé stole nuclear warheads and then arranged to sell them to the highest bidder? And what would happen if a former intelligence officer and now a world–famous movie star tried to stop them?

That is the premise of Thomas Caplan’s masterful thriller The Spy Who Jumped Off the Screen. A scenario involving the theft of weapons of mass destruction is hardly far–fetched in today’s political landscape. Hundreds of nuclear warheads are unaccounted for and the possibility that they could end up in the hands of terrorists or an irrational dictator is a very real threat.

The story begins with the murder of Billy Clausen, a billionaire business contractor with a spotless reputation. Clausen becomes the front man in a plan to convert a former Russian nuclear weapons depot into a resort, thus concealing the theft and transfer of several decertified warheads. When Clausen withdraws from the project, he puts himself on the wrong side of the two villains, Ian Santal and Philip Frost.

Santal, a former academic and now one of the world’s biggest brokers, and Frost, a physicist/trader who worked for Santal, have engineered a heist that will make them extremely wealthy and put nuclear weapons into unknown hands. When U.S. surveillance turns up suspicions of such a plot, President Garland White calls upon former intelligence officer and current box office sensation Ty Hunter to get inside Santal’s inner circle. Hunter gets invited to a party on Santal’s boat, meets the ravishingly beautiful Isabella Cavill, and soon finds himself irresistibly drawn to her despite her engagement to Frost. Hunter needs all his charm, acting talents, and spy skills to uncover Santal and Frost’s plot—and to stay alive. He’s up against ruthless men with unlimited funds, impenetrable security, and a frightening compulsion to succeed at any cost.

A white–knuckle thriller and a love story, The Spy Who Jumped Off the Screen deftly explores important issues in a ripped–from–the–headlines narrative. Above all, The Spy Who Jumped Off the Screen gives us a charismatic new hero in Ty Hunter. He’s a man who is comfortable in the spotlight yet doesn’t seek it, who is equally adept at martial arts and the art of seduction, and whose ingenuity complements his daring. He jumps off the silver screen to play his most dramatic role ever—where the stakes are considerably higher than box office success.


Thomas Caplan, a founder of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, is the author of three previous novels,Line of Chance, Parallelogram, and Grace and Favor. He lives in Maryland.

Q. What drew you to write a novel about the theft and sale of nuclear warheads? How dangerous is this issue right now? What is being done about it?

Actually, the character of Ty Hunter came to mind well before the plot to hide, steal, and sell three MIRV’ed nuclear warheads. What both ideas had in common, however, was that they occurred more or less out of the blue. I can still recall the moment, driving to see friends for dinner outside Baltimore, that Ty Hunter—his name was not yet on tip of my tongue, but I could visualize him and knew that he was both a spy and a film star—popped into my mind. The same was true of Ian Santal’s scheme to divert warheads from a former Soviet missile installation. It was much later, but the pieces of that puzzle also fit together suddenly. It was early morning in Los Angeles when that happened. I had just finished a swim at a hotel pool. The sun was rising over the canyon and I thought, if this is – or was—possible, we are in real danger. I immediately called a friend in Washington who is an expert in such things and ran the scenario by him. He kept silent the whole time I spoke. He could think of no reason, he told me finally, why such a theft could not have been executed. Ironically, this took place almost around the corner from La Casa Encantada, the not quite forsaken mansion Ty has bought and begun to restore to its glory days in the novel.

As to the last part of your question, right now I think there is general agreement among those responsible for national security, in the United States and elsewhere, that the greatest danger we face is the possibility that nuclear weapons, from whatever source (and, sadly, there is an increasing number of these), may find their way into hands that would be prepared or even delighted to use them. In that event, as President Clinton observes in his Introduction to The Spy Who Jumped Off The Screen,[change this title to the same font as the rest of the text; I couldn’t] “our world will not be the same thereafter.”

A great deal is being done by many brave and ingenious people to prevent such an incomparable horror from coming to pass. Their task is all the more daunting for the myriad routes by which our enemies might proceed toward their nihilistic and nefarious goal.

Q. Why did you decide to make your hero, Ty Hunter, an actor as well as a former intelligence agent?

It was not a conscious decision, arrived at by a process of reasoning. As I’ve said, the idea, which is to say his character, came to me fully formed. As I wrote, he inevitably changed. At first I had thought of him as a few years younger, on the verge, perhaps, of fame as his twenties waned. Then, as he accumulated dimensions in my imagination, it was clear to me that Ty was already settled into his new life and into the relatively sudden, unexpected fame that would be his cloak. In this respect, he reminds me of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Q. How much research did you do for The Spy Who Jumped Off the Screen?[see comment above about the style of this title] Is it difficult to integrate facts and real situations into the fictional world of a novel?

I did a considerable amount of research, although the frame of the story is supported by places I know well or at least have been familiar with over a long period of time. The Sea of Azov would be the sole exception to this and, for that reason, I studied it and the Soviet protocols for dealing with nuclear arms, especially at the time of the country’s dissolution, with particular thoroughness. Fitting fact into fiction was not difficult. In this case, it was pure fun.

Q. Did you plot out the novel before you began writing or let the story carry you along? Did you know how it would end when you began?

A bit of both, to be honest. Once I knew Ty Hunter and that the story would center on an attempt to market warheads that had been secreted for some time, I had [this does not necessarily follow] a general sense of where the story was going. That it would begin in Kansas City and end on a westbound QSST, I had no idea. Nor did I know what role Oliver Molyneux would play as Ty’s sidekick, nor Zara Chapin as his quintessentially glamorous friend with benefits. From the start, I had a sense that the Mediterranean would serve as the backdrop for a lot of the novel’s most important action, but I’d no idea exactly how, or that other landscapes, Prague or London or Rome, would come into play. I knew that Ty would fall in love and that it was very likely that the object of his affections would, in due course, return them, but Isabella appeared on the page as I wrote, becoming more defined—and, I hope, alluring—with each draft. Bingo Chen and his crew, of whom I am particularly fond, also pushed their way into the story, for which I am wildly thankful—to them and to God.

Q. Philip describes the loss of his morality in the corporate world, going from assisting raiders and their hedge fund backers to insider trading, trading against his own customers, and eventually to murder. “It had been a short enough journey,” he says, “from destroying a person’s livelihood to destroying his life” [p. 234]. How prevalent do you think this kind of moral erosion is in the world of high finance?

Perhaps Philip is a shade too quick to draw this conclusion, but I do believe that there has been considerable moral erosion in the world of high finance, as well as in many other arenas of modern life, over the past few decades. Of course, this is a prevalent theme at the moment, much in the news, but even so, it is difficult to escape the truth of it in view of the headlines. In many quarters, a handshake used to mean more than a contract does now. Builders and destroyers, who could once be easily told apart, are today too often rated only as winners and losers. An ethic of service has been trumped by one of gain at any cost, even to the soul. My grandfather had a saying: “That man thinks he is going to live forever.” It was the perfect description of a certain sort of person, ostensibly successful yet adrift from his moorings in what was once legitimately called the civilized world.

Q. The Spy Who Jumped Off the Screen [see earlier comment about styling this title] is an exceptionally cinematic book. Are there any deals under way to get Ty Hunter back on the big screen? Have you thought about who might play the lead?

Thank you. I do hope the book is cinematic, most of all in the sense that it affords the reader a crystal clear view of certain places and contexts. These may be exotic, beguiling, or simply essential to the story. The important thing is that readers experience them as though they were present as events unfold.

In his next outing, having soon enough tired of his sabbatical, Ty will be back on the big screen—on location in a place you might not at first expect.

As for the possibility that this novel will eventually become a motion picture, there are just beginning to be rumblings. Not knowing much, I can’t say much—yet. I did not write the book with a movie in mind, but would be pleased—thrilled, actually—if a good one was to come out of it. There are any number of actors I could imagine in the lead, including several who are not yet household names.

Q. How accurate is the high–tech hacking described in the novel?

It is very accurate. I went to great lengths to be sure of that. As I am not a hacker or a geek myself, I consulted a number of those who are in order to be sure that the verisimilitude of these scenes would match that of the novel’s other set pieces. Of course, I inflected some of the quartet of geeks’ banter and antics with humor, as when Jonty Patel floods his Mumbai–based current account with all the treasure of Switzerland. If this represents exaggeration, it is of an obvious sort, entirely in character and all in fun.

Q. Judging by your book’s introduction, you and President Bill Clinton share a passion for spy novels. How did you discover this? How close are you with the former president? Did he inform your characterization of Garland White?

I think we’ve always known it, certainly since reading Ian Fleming and John le Carré in college and watching, with rapt attention, films such as that of Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File, starring Michael Caine. It is not suspense alone, but the importance of what is at stake, as well as the importance of atmosphere, that causes spy stories to rivet our—and so many others’—imaginations.

President Clinton and I have been close friends since we met as Georgetown freshmen, when he had just turned eighteen and I was about to, in September 1964. Such friendships, which are among the finest and most enduring of life’s gifts, cannot be quantified or ranked. Obviously, it is because of this friendship that I have had the privilege and pleasure of visiting Camp David and other rarefied venues associated with the American presidency, but Bill Clinton is not, in even the slightest way, a model for Garland White.

Q. What novels and films have exerted the most influence on your writing?

There are far too many to list, but among the books would be: The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, A Coffin for Dimitrios, Brideshead Revisited, Appointment in Samara, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,; and The Day of the Jackal.

Such films would include: Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Brief Encounter, Northby Northwest, Dr. No, Lawrence of Arabia, The Graduate, and Dr. Zhivago,; as well as the BBC television series based on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’sPeople.

Q. Do you think we will we see any familiar characters we meet here in your future novels?

Oh, absolutely! I have nearly finished a second Ty Hunter novel in which not only Ty but Oliver and Zara return, as do Bingo, Delilah, Jonty, and Nevada, and.

  • Why does Caplan begin the novel with the murder of Billy Clausen? How do the opening chapters set up what follows and create a sense of suspense and mystery?

  • What makes Ty Hunter such an appealing protagonist? What are his most engaging qualities? In what ways is he both like and unlike other heroes of the genre, James Bond and Jason Bourne, for example?

  • In a moment of playful banter, Zara tells Ty that being an actor and a spy are “two sides of a coin” [p. 97]. In what ways are acting and spying similar? How does Ty use his skills in both areas in The Spy Who Jumped Off the Screen?

  • How does Ian justify stealing and selling nuclear warheads? Is there any truth to his argument that having more warheads loose in the world will actually lessen rather than increase the chances of conflict by empowering weaker nations with the means to protect themselves from aggression?

  • What kind of man is Philip Frost? What motivates him to do what he does? How does he justify his actions? What does Isabella mean when she describes Philip as “a symphony of frost and flame” [p. 201]?

  • Why are Ty and Isabella so drawn to each other? How does their romance both complicate and accelerate the plot of the novel?

  • Oliver tells Ty, “This is not our grandfathers’ world, where the righteous and the evil retreated to their separate base camps. We live side by side in a world of very few uniforms now” [p. 194]. In what ways are good and evil ambiguous, or hard to separate, in the novel?

  • Why does Philip kill Ian? What does he gain by doing so? How does he feel about murdering his friend, mentor, and business partner?

  • What methods, both conventional and unconventional, do Ty and Oliver use to recapture the warheads? How are they able to uncover Philip and Ian’s plan and then thwart it?

  • The growing number of missing nuclear warheads is a very important issue, though it receives little media coverage. How does The Spy Who Jumped Off the Screen dramatize that issue and make it easier to comprehend?