Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Ugly Bus by Mike Thomas

This is the author’s second book, after his impressive debut, A Pocket Notebook. I reviewed that book here: While a book not without its flaws, A Pocket Notebook was good enough and original enough for me to wonder how, and indeed if, Thomas would be able to follow up. I needn't have worried, for Ugly Bus is an even better read.

Ugly Bus offers the reader an insight into the mind of officers serving with the Territorial Support Group (TSG). As someone with friends in the police, I'm familiar with the public order unit; indeed a running joke amongst other officers is that the TSG is made up of knuckle dragging Neanderthals. Their public image is also not exactly rosy. The TSG replaced the controversial Special Patrol Group (SPG), officers of which gained an unsavoury reputation for violence. Indeed it was SPG officers who were implicated in the death of Blair Peach, a cause celebre of the protest movement of the 1970’s. While the TSG are undoubtedly an improvement on their forebears, they've courted controversy in their own right. Ian Tomlinson the newspaper seller who died in 2009 during the G20 protests, did so after a confrontation caught on camera with a member of the Met’s TSG. So the TSG are viewed with suspicion in many quarters, dismissed as thugs in others. They are rarely portrayed in fiction and when they are, it's as little more than bit parts. I was intrigued by what Thomas would do with such fertile territory.

One of the niggles I had with the author’s first book is that it promised an insight (however twisted) into the mind of a firearms officer, only to snatch it away by demoting the main character to that of beat Bobby. Ugly Bus does no such thing. The author clearly knows more of this world than he did that of the firearms teams. He writes here with real authority and passion. The characters are well drawn and three-dimensional. The series of events, each steadily worse than those which have preceded, are viscerally drawn. The denouement when it comes is shocking in the truest sense of the word.

The author’s biography tells us that he’s an ex-police officer. What it doesn't say is whether he ever served with the TSG. Ugly Bus leaves me in little doubt that he has. What's interesting is that he appears conflicted about the squad. Few of the officers he portrays in the novel are sympathetic; some are quite frankly repulsive human beings. In this sense his portrayal lives up to the image held by the TSG’s detractors. But he also shows the real and almost impossible challenges officers serving with the TSG face. There's one scene where they're stuck in the middle between far right activists and anti-fascists, many of the latter middle class and seemingly respectable, and yet the vitriol this group turns on the police is breathtaking.

This is a brilliant novel, flawless in every way. It's not as funny as his first book, but what it lacks in humour it more than makes for with humanity. The only question is what Thomas write next? How does he top this? I for one can’t wait to find out.

A well deserved five out of five stars.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Blood and Roses by Mark Dawson

This is the final instalment of Mark Dawson’s Beatrix Rose trilogy, the first of which I reviewed here:, the second here:

Mark Dawson dropped the ball ever so slightly with Blood Moon Rising – please note, even when he does he’s still a cut above many writers and that book is well worth a read – but with Blood and Roses he’s back on 5 star form. His Beatrix Rose trilogy comes to a thrilling end with our heroine first defending her house in Marrakech from a heliborne assault and then flying to the United States to despatch her arch-nemesis, Control. But there’s a complication. Beatrix is terminally ill with cancer and over the course of the two previous novels we’ve witnessed her steady decline. In Blood and Roses she’s approaching death’s door.

Blood and Roses is both a brilliant book and effective end to the trilogy. As always with Mark Dawson it is well written and deftly plotted. The characters are well drawn and three dimensional, in particular both Beatrix and her daughter Isabella, the latter so much so that I wasn’t surprised to learn that the author has resurrected the character for her own series of novels. Beatrix’s cancer is also well realised. The use of this plotline both undercuts the main character’s superhuman tendencies – she is seriously kick-ass – and makes her all too mortal, while also adding to the tension as we wonder whether she will finally be able to achieve her goal. The settings are well drawn and as with Somalia in the first novel, In Cold Blood, Dawson vividly brings to life all three major locations – Marrakech, New York and most memorably, the swamps of North Carolina.
In conclusion this is a stunning finale to a stunning trilogy, Mark Dawson is an astounding thriller writer, and his publishers’, Thomas and Mercer, were wise to snap him up before anyone else did.
I would give this book 5 out of 5 stars

Blood Moon Rising by Mark Dawson

This is the second of Mark Dawson’s Beatrix Rose trilogy, the first of which I reviewed here: Blood Moon Rising finds our heroine, Beatrix, on the trail of her third target, a mercenary now in the employ of a private military corporation in Iraq. Once again she goes about her job with ruthless efficiency.

There’s a lot to like about this novel. Beatrix is well drawn and he describes her weakening state – she is terminally ill with cancer – effectively. There is a well considered sub-plot in which the British Government are keen to help her in her mission, on the proviso that she rescues a company whistle-blower for them.  The man has evidence of human rights abuses committed by the company in Iraq and the British want to publicise this so that the Americans lose their contracts. The idea is that these will be put out to tender and British companies can win them. Too often in fiction the US/UK are portrayed as inseparable allies and Dawson deserves credit for portraying the more murky reality that sometimes the two undercut and work against each other.

The bulk of the action takes place in Iraq and while Dawson writes with assurance, unfortunately the setting didn’t ring true to me. Bizarrely for a book written in the current climate, there is no mention of ISIS. Instead the book takes place around Basra and Muqtada al-Sadr is repeatedly mentioned as the leader of the insurgency. Yet the novel is clearly set after British and American troops have withdrawn and furthermore, al-Sadr stopped his involvement in insurgent activity in 2008.  But the real problem for me in the setting is that westerners are able to move around so freely. Even today Iraq is a dangerous place, yet Beatrix is able to saunter up to the PMC’s headquarters in Basra and plant a tracker under one of their vehicles – the parking lot being open to the sidewalk, no fences or coils of razorwire, no berms or concrete barricades to prevent suicide bombers. Similarly vehicles driven by PMC personnel and their families drive without convoys. In one scene the wife of Beatrix’s mercenary target takes off in her own car. No one tries to stop, none of the guards race after her. This is all highly implausible. 

This issue with the setting is unfortunate, because like the novel that preceded it, Blood Moon Rising is an assured piece of writing. It’s tense, keeps you turning the pages and is incredibly entertaining.

I would award this book four stars.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Pocket Notebook by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas is a former police officer. He’s not the first ex-cop to turn his hand to writing, though most of his contemporaries either write biographies or turn to police procedurals. What both groups have in common is an often-rosy portrayal of the police. It is because Thomas appeared to promise the exact opposite which drew me to his books. Pocket Notebook, his first novel, comes with a recommendation from the Independent on the back cover. The book, the Independent says, will become cult reading in police circles but will certainly not be used as a training manual. The front cover certainly supports this assertion, introducing our protagonist, Jacob Smith, as a firearms officer, steroid abuser and foot fetishist.

So what did I find when I opened the book? Did it meet my expectations? Well kind of. While in some ways it exceeded them. The cover gives an idea of the book as a madcap combination of American Pycho and A Clockwork Orange, a version of John Niven’s Kill Your Friends perhaps, but set in the world of the boys and girls in blue, rather than the music biz of the 1990’s. It undoubtedly has elements of those three. For example late in the book there’s a hilarious scene where Smith is caught by his best friend, masturbating in the shoes of the best friend’s daughter, who he’s become obsessed with. But the novel is also richer than this. As with American Psycho, A Clockwork Orange and Kill Your Friends, there has to be more than violence and outrageous sex or it’s just infantile. Behind the shock factor, Thomas’ book is a study of a man slowly losing his grip on his sanity; a portrait of what someone who’s defined by their job and status does when all that is stripped away.

A pocket Notebook is a good book; in some ways it’s an excellent novel, funny, riotous, at points sad and poignant. It’s written with an assuredness that is impressive in a debut. If I have one criticism, it is that it strays quite early on from its USP. One of its selling points is that Jacob Smith is a firearms officer; there’s a frisson that a man amidst a meltdown is carrying a Glock. But very early in the novel he’s stripped of that role and is thrown back on the beat and I felt that this cheated the reader somehow. On the whole though this is a minor quibble and I would unhesitatingly recommend this book.

I would give this book 4 out of 5 stars

Zero Zero Zero by Roberto Saviano

Roberto Saviano dedicates his book to his police bodyguards, for he’s a writer in that small and exclusive club: one with a target on his back. While Salman Rushdie, another famous alumni of the club, dared to say something critical about, Saviano took on Camorrah in his previous bestseller Gamorrah. His previous book was a passionately angry screed, in part based on his own personal experiences, against the Neapolitan mafia that were poisoning his home town of Naples. His anger dripped from the pages of that tome and so it was with similar expectations that I approached his latest offering, an examination of the international cocaine trade.

Zero Zero Zero is in some ways the better book. It’s more sober, reflecting the author’s own distance from the subject. Before reading the book I saw an interview Saviano did with the BBC’s Hardtalk programme, where he explained that while he couldn’t walk the streets like he used to, his contacts with the police were now ironically better. He said that he was able to interview leading narcotics officers throughout the world and the book certainly reflects both that approach and that level of access. Saviano surveys the cocaine trade from Colombia, through the Mexican cartels and the vicious narco-wars that have wracked that nation, through transit through Africa and into the hands of ‘Ndranghetta, not the most powerful of Italy’s mafias. It’s an impressive achievement and once again he doesn’t shy away from naming names.

The problem is that while Zero Zero Zero is undoubtedly a good book, a great book even, Saviano is increasingly playing in a crowded field. Other writers and journalists have similar levels of access and have written similar works. Don Winslow’s seminal novels The Power of The Dog and The Cartel, describe the tragedy that is modern Mexico in heartbreakingly poetic prose, while a new documentary film Cartel Land is bringing the story to the silver screen. John Dickie has published a number of books on Italy’s mafias, including the ‘Ndranghetta, while the cocaine trade more widely has been covered as far back as Gary Webb in his work the Dark Alliance.

Gamorrah was fresh exactly because Saviano had lived it, walked the streets of Naples, seen where the bodies were gunned down, smelt the fetid air of a countryside polluted by industrial waste ferried down from the north of Italy by a criminal sub-culture so debased that they were happy to poison their own hinterland fro a fast buck. Zero Zero Zero simply can’t compete.

In short Zero Zero Zero is a great book and I award it four stars. It’s just that Gamorah was better.