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.

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