Thursday, 14 January 2016

Blog Tour: The American by Nadia Dalbuono

The American by Nadia Dalbuono

It takes a certain level of chutzpah to tackle big global themes in a police procedural, but an equal if not greater measure of panache to pull off. Luckily for readers, Nadia Dalbuono has both in spades and The American, a sequel to her brilliant debut The Few, is a novel that amply demonstrates the author’s not inconsiderable talents.

Once again we are with Detective Leone Scamarcio, of the Rome police Flying Squad. The son of a Mafiosi, he is distrusted by many of his colleagues in the police force. While this suspicion is on the whole unjust – he is an honest cop committed to the rule of law - he remains conflicted between a desire to turn his back on the mafia once and for all and the ease through which he can short cut the infamous clunking Italian judiciary by use of his uncle’s criminal contacts. As with the previous novel, the Faustian Pact he strikes and his attempt to walk the tightrope between legality and illegality adds a gripping undercurrent of existential risk to Scamarcio’s character arc.

The main plot involves an even bigger conspiracy than that which appeared in The Few, though the child pornographers and killers from that story remain in the background and may well seek some sort of vengeance in a future book. This time Scamarcio attends the scene of an apparent suicide only to be dragged into a conspiracy that embraces the world of international espionage and great power politics.

But this is no purely fictional scandal. Like Oliver Stone with his film JFK, Dalbuono utilises a strong factual base to weave her story. The Vatican’s role in supporting both the Solidarity movement in Poland and less wholesome movements in Latin America is touched upon. As is Operation Gladio, the so-called stay behind armies, which the United States prepared in Western Europe in the 1960’s for the event that the continent fell to a Soviet invasion. The links between Gladio and the political violence Italy experienced in the 1970’s is also dealt with. All of this is well-documented historical fact and Dalbuono weaves it into her narrative without ever overburdening the story or slowing the pace.

Finally she adds the fictional layer that drives her story forward to the present day. Or at least, I sincerely hope it’s fictional. And this is where my earlier comparison with Oliver Stone’s JFK is apt. For as Stone took historical detail from the era of Kennedy’s assassination and used it to build a narrative suggestive of conspiracy, Dalbuono takes the facts outlined above and uses them to suggest that 9/11 was the Vatican and Gladio’s bastard offspring.

I’m generally sceptical of conspiracy theory. The idea that there are dark actors pulling the strings of history seems fanciful to me. Gladio is a good illustration of this: while some might argue that the political violence that Italy suffered in the 1970’s was a desired outcome of the plotters, that it prevented the country from going Communist, an equally strong case could be made for it being a disaster borne of ineptitude. Much of the evidence to emerge on Gladio over the past forty years is that the CIA armed a plethora of far right nutcases, fantasists and lunatics, that they had little control over their proxies, and that the violence of the seventies led to the whole deck of cards collapsing.

If this seems like I’m going off on a tangent, then bear with me. For what I’m suggesting is that while on the whole I’m suspicious of conspiracy theory and would never normally entertain the notion that 9/11 was a US plot, the brilliance of this book is that by the end of it I was starting to doubt my own certainty. This book had me almost convinced the Sept 11th attacks were a put up job, that Osama bin Laden was nothing but a CIA puppet, and that the whole edifice of the “war on terror” was a cynical plot to persuade Western publics to support war with no end.

If this review makes The American sound too heavy, more textbook or polemic, then please don’t misunderstand. The American is a compelling page-turner of a thriller, complete with likeable protagonist in Leone Scamarcio. But while Nadia Dalbuono has been compared to Donna Leone, I would argue that a better comparison would be with the greats of alternate and counterfactual history, writers like James Ellroy and David Peace.

Brilliant and inspired, this is a novel you don’t’ want to miss and I applaud the scale of Nadia Dalbuono’s talent and ambition.


I award this a well deserved five out of five stars.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Hostage by Jamie Doward

This is Jamie Doward’s second novel, a sequel to his excellent debut, Toxic. Once again our protagonist is Kate Pendragon, the treasury money-laundering expert. No longer on secondment to MI5 and no longer with the Treasury, Kate is now employed by one of the country’s biggest tobacco companies.

Hostage kicks off with a man being brutally murdered. This is part of a string of similarly brutal crimes, all characterised by sadistic violence and the victims being trussed up and wearing too-large slip-on-shoes. We also learn pretty quickly that an al-Qaeda type terror group have taken a bunch of hostages in the Algerian oil fields and are using social media to drum up a crowd-sourced ransom. Kate’s lover, Sorrenson, is the officer in charge of the investigation into the torture killings, a slight coincidence that is forgivable in the narrative.

It isn't long before it becomes apparent that all is not well with Kate’s new employer, that their product is distributed around the world in an opaque and highly dodgy manner, that there is strong evidence that it ends up funding terrorists, including those holding the hostages. Needless to say, Kate’s former MI5 employer’s come knocking and she is reluctantly dragged into the investigation.

As with the author’s debut, the plot of Hostage is Byzantine to say the least; the book tackles issues of global financial malfeasance and the twists come thick and fast. On the whole I approve of this kind of writing. Too often in crime fiction we have a detective, a serial killer, a series of brutal murders. Cue same old, same old, derivative plotting. The author deserves credit for coming up with something fresh, for treating his readers like they have a brain and who enjoy a bit of intellectual meat on the bones of their crime thrillers.

The hostage situation in Algeria, the brutal murders committed on the south coast of England, Kate’s tobacco company employer all inexorably comes together and I found myself irresistibly turning pages wanting to know what happened next. The novel is well written, the tension is ratcheted up nicely and I found both Kate Pendragon and Sorrenson likeable characters. On the whole the villains weren't one-dimensional monsters either.

That all said, there are some real problems with this book. For a start, unlike the author’s debut, Toxic, I found the plot of Hostage to be too labyrinthine, to the point that it was on the cusp of being indecipherable. Of course, I'm in danger of creating a hostage to fortune for myself, writing as I did above that the author deserves kudos for treating his readers like they have a brain. Perhaps I'm just not clever enough to have got the plot. Fact is though that I'm still not entirely clear as to what the villains in this book wanted to achieve.

This leads to a second criticism. I hope I'm not giving away too big a spoiler, but part of the plot involves a rogue financial arm to the CIA. If that sounds familiar it’s because it reflects an aspect of his first book. In Toxic it was a rogue CIA bank, in Hostage, it's a rogue CIA venture capital firm. Just how many rogue financial arms are we supposed to believe the CIA has? One was believable, two is stretching credulity, let's just hope one doesn't pop up in the next book.

A minor issue to some readers, but one which really grated to me was when one of those committing the murders in England gets shot by the armed police. We learn that he was shot in the leg. The detective Sorrenson tells him in hospital that the armed police always try to wound rather than kill. This is nonsense. As  someone with friends in the police, I can tell the author that armed officers never aim for the leg or arm but always the trunk. This isn't some dodgy shoot to kill policy, but simply because their prime duty is to incapacitate the threat. They need to stop the assailant and be certain to stop him. Shooting the arm or leg endangers the officers concerned and the wider public. It risks an armed assailant still being able to discharge his or her weapon. As an experienced journalist in his own right, the author should know this.

In conclusion, this was a good book but a disappointment after the author’s previous offering. It wasn't as fresh as the original, seemingly recycling the aspect regarding rogue CIA financial arms; the plot was too convoluted and the motivations of all the characters wasn't always clear. I enjoyed it, but I worry where next he can take his characters. Hopefully his third novel will recapture some of the magic of the debut.

I give this three out of five stars.