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Chester County Press

Kennett Township native pens critically-acclaimed spy thriller

06/28/2022 03:07PM ● By Richard Gaw
Courtesy photo         Kennett Township native Michael Woodward’s first novel, The Handler, was published to critical acclaim last month.

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

Start at the beginning of every writer’s artistic journey and you will very likely trace his or her original steps to childhood. The first story, the first spiral-bound notebook chock full of snippets and observations, and the first inkling that a life spent with words would become an inevitable destiny.

When Michael Woodward was a child growing up on the family farm in Kennett Township, he took on an early fascination with the lives that writers led beyond their published works. On a visit to the Bayard Taylor Memorial Library in Kennett Square, he was told that Taylor was a writer. Subsequently, Woodward began reading several of Taylor’s books.

I was always fascinated by who writers were and the influence that they had on society,” Woodward said from his home in Washington state. “I remember thinking about how Mark Twain who was revered in literature, but by reading about his life I found out that he not just a humorist but that he also made social commentary.

“From a young age, I realized that there was something more important to writing than just providing entertainment.”

Over the last several weeks, Woodward himself has become a primary writer of interest. His first book, The Handler, (Penguin Random House), has quickly earned critical praise for its ability to tell the story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the world of international espionage. The 448-page thriller tells the story of Meredith Morris-Dale, a former CIA case officer who is being called back to investigate a CIA mole who is sabotaging Iran’s uranium enrichment program in order to prevent the building of a terrorist bomb. The situation has become very dangerous, and the mole wants to pull out of the operation. In a major plot twist, the only person he trusts is disgraced former CIA operative John Dale, the ex-husband of Meredith.

As Meredith and John struggle through their fraught relationship, a craven CIA political hierarchy, Russian interference, and the rogue spy’s manipulation, they must reach deep within their shared connection to maintain, recover or kill the asset.

Experience writes the story

For a debut novel less than a month after publication, The Handler has already received rave reviews. “M.P. Woodward’s brilliant espionage thriller…oozes authenticity and tension from every page,” wrote Mark Greaney, the author of the Gray Man Series.

“A spectacular tale, brimming with intrigue, suspense, and richly-drawn characters,” wrote New York Times best-selling author Marc Cameron.

It is often recommended to novice writers to “write what you know,” and in the case of Woodward’s work on The Handler, it is clear that he followed the advice. During his career as a naval intelligence officer with the U.S. Pacific Command – that included multiple deployments to the Persian Gulf and Far East -- Woodward worked alongside U.S. Special Forces, the CIA and the National Security Agency. As part of his responsibilities, he scripted scenario moves and countermoves for U.S. war game exercises in the Middle East.

“I had attempted a couple of manuscripts before, but I had not really studied storytelling,” Woodward said. “When I was in the Navy, I tried to write a novel about people at sea, and I struggled with it and abandoned it. Later, as a tech executive, I tried to write a satire of the tech industry from the view of a venture capitalist.

“I got better at drumming up characters and tension between them, but I still didn’t know how to write a page-turner.”

After leaving the military, Woodward handled international distribution marketing for Amazon Prime Video, and helped to launch Amazon's original video content in more than 40 countries through more than one hundred cable, wireless, and broadband partnerships.

I worked with a lot of content creators at Amazon, and as I heard their ideas, I began to think about a novel as a product, in much in the same way as the shows we were making,” Woodward said. “I began to look at story construction and how one can create suspense and pull a reader into a drama.”

The impetus to write a novel began to further crystallize in early 2020, soon after Iran admitted that it had unintentionally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane that killed all 176 people aboard, most of whom were college students headed back to college in Canada.

“At the time I thought how the parents must have felt about losing a son or daughter on that plane, and then I thought what if one of those parents was someone who had importance in Iranian government,” Woodward said. “I began putting it against the framework of an idea I had developed earlier.

“I had that military background that enabled me to know how these government incidents could play out against a background like that, and then I saw it happen.”

‘I wanted to showcase a strong woman leader’

For those who have – or are about to – read The Handler, Woodward introduces an emerging form into the spy thriller paradigm, one that has for decades been dominated by masculine marauders: the female heroine in the character of Meredith Morris-Dale.

What I have noticed is that spy fiction has gone from high techno thriller to the war on terror,” he said. “In those books, every one of those heroes carried a gun and killed the bad guys. What I wanted to show was something in between – that while there is this competition among nations, it’s being fought by people who operate below the surface. My framework was to have a geopolitical foundation competition among countries, and then have operatives who are both doers and thinkers trying to effect policy.

“When it came to Meredith, I wanted to showcase a strong woman leader as more of a thinker. I have worked with many professional women across many platforms, and often, they are in the minority and forced to deal with male egos. Some of them have been so good at navigating these personalities, and I wanted to show that in action, and to use a female character to illustrate how silly an egotistical man can be.

“I also wanted to create someone who didn’t have a perfect life and was attempting to be a super-person and failing, because no one is that.”

While the buzz about The Handler continues to circulate from critics to readers to online reviewers, Woodward is wrapping up the second installment in a series of books he has contracted with Penguin Random House to write. Entitled Scorched Earth, it reintroduces Meredith Morris-Dale in a different setting; he has also been in conversations with film producers who are pitching creative ideas in the hopes of someday converting The Handler into a motion picture.

Most often, it is the aspiration of a writer merely to someday know the feeling of having a final, published work in hand. For Michael Woodward, he has not only achieved a dream he has had since his childhood in Kennett Township, but he is seeing his first novel ascend the rungs of popularity and acclaim less than one month after it publication.

“This has been a dream come true and a wonderful adventure so far,” he said.

To learn more about Michael Woodward, visit

To order The Handler by M.P. Woodward, visit

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].