Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Hex is an incredibly frightening and spooky novel. It stayed with me for more nights than I cared for. With a horror novel I guess that's praise. But this is more than just a thrill ride, for I found Hex to also be very touching with a big emotional impact.

The action takes place in Black Spring, a picturesque town in the Hudson Valley. It's present day, at one point the narrative refers to the Presidential Election of 2012. But Black Spring has a secret: it's haunted by the Black Rock Witch and her 300-year-old curse. This Seventeenth Century apparition stalks the hamlet and its environs, a terrifying vision wrapped in chains with its eyes and mouth sewn shut. We learn that in life, Katherine van Wyler was accused of witchcraft and raising the dead. She suffered the fate of all women so accused back then, torture and execution, after being forced to strangle one of her children with her bare hands whom the villagers believed she had raised from death after he passed away from Smallpox. Ever since she has haunted the village. How her eyes and mouth were stitched up, nobody knows, but all the present day townsfolk know is that if anyone ever unstitched them, the results would be horrific. As it is one stitch has been removed from the corner of her mouth and the result is anyone who hears her whispers tries to kill themselves.

Reading this, you might wonder how the author can set his novel in the present day. Wouldn't the world know about this? Wouldn't it be a worldwide sensation? He gets around this by postulating that the West Point Military Academy nearby, in cahoots with the townsfolk, have covered it up for centuries, knowing that should the wider world know, someone, somewhere, would try to unstitch her mouth and eyes. The townsfolk are all complicit in this and through a network of volunteers and CCTV cameras, they keep an eye on the witch and put in place all manner of distractions and barriers between her and any outsiders who happen to visit. It's a credit to the author how credible he makes all this seem in his tale, and as a reader I found myself buying into the plausibility of it all.

The plot itself revolves around one family's struggle with life in the village. They have teenage children who are chafing at the constraints. One aspect of the curse is that those that live there become suicidal if they leave for any length of time, meaning that the prospect of travelling, or pursuing any meaningful career outside of town, is slight. Another aspect of life in the village is that the Internet and social media is strictly controlled to prevent anyone leaking information of the witch to the outside world. Along with a few friends, the eldest son is secretly filming the witch and experimenting to see just how powerful she is.

I won't say much more for fear of divulging spoilers, but what I will mention is that a central character commits suicide after hearing the witch’s whispering. I mention this for a reason and that is that this part delivers much of the novel’s emotional resonance.. The author describes the devastation of grief the character's family feels after his death so vividly, that at times I found the book extremely difficult to read. I can only imagine the pain that a suicide would cause to a family and he paints a picture of utter desolation, of a huge void left in the centre of what was once a happy and contented family unit.

This is an incredibly powerful novel and one that I would not hesitate to give 5 stars to. It's frightening and the scenes where the witch appears might keep you up at night. However, I think it important to warn that if you have suffered a recent bereavement, especially through suicide, you might want to give this a miss. For some of the chapters are heartrending in their sorrow.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, 16 May 2016

A Very Expensive Poison by Luke Harding

This is possibly the first serious book to look at the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, post the publication of the official inquiry. Even prior to that, while there were many books on the subject, more than a few were either conspiracist in nature or had an axe to grind.

Luke Harding, an experienced Guardian journalist and the paper’s former Moscow correspondent, has long followed the story. In fact, as his previous book Mafia State makes clear, part of the reason he was banished from Russia was due to his persistent questioning of the Kremlin’s narrative.

A Very Expensive Poison is a book of two halves, or perhaps more accurately, three thirds. The first two thirds of the book focus exclusively on Litvinenko himself, the two main suspects, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, and the events leading up to Litvinenko’s poisoning. Harding handles this with precision, examining every detail, every event, to draw a picture of a plot that veered from the deeply sinister, to the comically farcical, and back again.

The most striking thing to emerge is just how amateurish it all was. For those used to the cold, clinical, professional KGB hitmen of spy fiction, this will come as a huge surprise. Kovtun in particular comes across as a Walter Mitty-esque clown, the sort of person one would be tempted to dismiss as a fantasist. Indeed, Kovtun confessed to one associate in Hamburg that he was carrying a “very expensive poison” (hence the book’s title) and was going to murder someone in London, only for this friend to assume that he was telling tall tales. But even Lugovoi, on the surface a much more likely hired killer, having served as a Kremlin bodyguard, appears to have been little more than an oaf.

This blundering ineptness is never more apparent in the trail of radioactivity they left throughout London (and Hamburg, and the plane they arrived on from Moscow). They literally pored it down sinks, left it on towels; a scattering of toxic breadcrumbs leading police to hotel rooms, cafes, restaurants and night clubs. And if like me you assumed at the time that Alexander Litvinenko’s agonising death was a very public warning to others, you’d be wrong. The plan seems to have been to get him to ingest a lot more of the stuff, to have him die quickly and mysteriously. Instead, thanks to his killer’s incompetence, he was left to tortuously suffer slow organ failure, leaving him enough time to help the police piece together events and point the finger at their bosses in Moscow.

There is just one problem in Harding’s account up to this point. If Polonium is so dangerous, why was Litvinenko the only one to get sick? Why not Kovtun and Lugovoi, who while not digesting it, certainly manhandled it? And why not innocent members of the public who came into contact with sites irradiated by the killers? This question is never satisfactorily addressed in the book. There is discussion of Polonium’s properties, it’s incredible toxicity, but nothing to adequately explain this fact. I did in fact ask Luke Harding this very question via twitter and he explained that Polonium is only deadly if ingested, and then even micro-amounts might kill you.

While I applaud the author’s willingness to engage with his readers, it would have been much better had Harding explained this in greater depth in the book itself. For while it appears that Lugovoi and Kovtun had no idea of exactly what they were carrying, the knowledge of how polonium might be “safe” under certain circumstances helps to explain one peculiar aspect of the case. Just after successfully poisoning Litvinenko’s tea, Lugovoi called his own infant son over and made them shake hands. Why risk your own infant son unless you knew the poison had to be ingested to work? So while they might well have had no idea it was polonium they were carrying, they might have been advised that the toxin had to be ingested to cause harm and that handling it in and of itself was not likely to lead to adverse effects.

The last third of the book I found a lot less satisfying. Harding’s thesis is that the murder of Litvinenko was the first shot, if you will, of covert conflict with the west. Indeed, the subheading of the book is “the definitive story of the murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War with the West.” In support of this premise, he widens his analysis to include other suspicious deaths of Russian dissidents, Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and the conflict in the Ukraine. While this is valid up to a point, I felt that these are big subjects in and of themselves, and that this section was let down by the necessary brevity he had to treat them with.

I also felt Harding overextended himself here. I am no supporter or apologist for Putin, his autocratic rule is obvious enough and Harding achieves nothing if not convincingly laying the murder of Litvinenko and others at his door. But while Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine is beyond doubt, is it really inconceivable that the West wasn’t whiter than white in the conflict? There is an argument to be had that America’s support for NGOs in the region is not as benign as the Washington establishment might have us believe and I don’t feel it unreasonable to question the narrative that Russian fears are completely without foundation. Harding is equally dismissive of Russia’s involvement in Syria, but again, one doesn’t have to be in the Putin fan club to ask why? While it is beyond doubt that Assad is a nasty tyrant and that Russian airstrikes have been aimed at the Free Syrian Army as well as more radical jihadist groups, it is also perfectly reasonable to point out that Russia has shown more leadership than the UK and US combined. Can we really fault the Russian bear for liberating Palmyra from ISIS?

In all I found that Harding lost some objectivity in this last section, which is a shame. Putin and the Russian state are bad enough as they are - as Harding amply demonstrates in his forensic analysis of Litvinenko’s murder - without having to overegg the pudding. Indeed, I would argue that it does Putin’s critics a disservice. For the Russian President’s supporters can point to arguments and facts prematurely and hastily discarded as evidence of bias.

In conclusion, A Very Expensive Poison is a hugely accomplished work and leaves the reader in little doubt that Putin and his chums are little more than underworld dons who have hijacked an entire state. But the last third of the book skims over huge territory, whilst lacking some objectivity of what came before it. This dilutes the force of Harding’s analysis.

4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

A Dying Breed by Peter Hanington

Peter Hanington is a former radio producer for the Today programme, latterly rising to be its Assistant Editor. Taking on board the old adage to write what you know, he’s set his debut novel in the world of the foreign correspondent and the political machinations inside the BBC. We have William Carver, a gifted but deeply flawed veteran correspondent, an inveterate drunk who the hierarchy are trying to force into early retirement; Rob Mariscal, the editor of Today, an embittered man who strikes fear into those under him; and Patrick Reid, a young whippersnapper of a producer, still very green and idealistic.

Patrick is dispatched by Mariscal to Afghanistan, his first foreign posting, with orders to reign Carver in. The foreign correspondent is onto something with a story concerning a recent bombing, in which a prominent Afghan businessman and politician was murdered. Unfortunately, there are people who don’t want this story told. At risk of giving away too great a spoiler, they have their claws in Rob and get him to try to put a stop to it. What plays out is a conspiracy thriller set against a realistic portrayal of radio journalism and foreign correspondence in the 21st century.

There are aspects of this novel that I liked and others that I didn’t. Having been a current affairs journalist myself, and having worked for the BBC - albeit for only a short time and not on Today - I was impressed by his no pulling punches approach to writing about the corporation. While this is no hatchet job on the BBC, and BBC journalists are shown doing a good and thorough job, the stultifying bureaucracy which so too often stifles them is ably demonstrated, particularly in the earlier sections. So too is a reporter’s life in Afghanistan, that sense of surrealism and privilege that representatives of a first world media organisation can’t fail to demonstrate when operating in what is in essence a third world country. Finally, Carver’s relationship with his fixer, Karim, is well drawn. Hanington does a service to fixers everywhere with his portrayal of Karim, for as in this novel, they are often as gifted journalists, sometimes more so, than the apparent star.

There is one other aspect I should mention, something that might only appeal to fellow journalists. I might be imagining this, but to me both Rob Mariscal, and a minor character, the pompous news correspondent John Brandon, appear to be mischievously based on real people. Mariscal made me think of a certain former Today editor who now makes a living as an outspoken columnist. Brandon meanwhile brought to mind someone who once liberated Kabul on his lonesome. Of course, as I say, I could be imagining this.

Some aspects of the novel weren’t so satisfying, however. The book is very male. Early on, Carter has a producer whose role is also to reign him in, but he wears her down and she flies back to Blighty. This leaves a gap for Patrick and hence he comes. While there is nothing wrong with this per se, and I’m certainly not suggesting the author needed to shoe-horn in a female character out of some politically correct notion of box ticking, it did feel a bit like, “Well, now the women are safely out of the way, we can get on with the job of real journalism.” Another issue I had is while I enjoyed this book immensely, it was a bit of a slow burner; there were times when I put it down and had to actively remind myself to return to it.

That all said, A Dying Breed is certainly a compelling thriller, and if you have any interest in the news business at all it is well worth a read.

4 out of 5 stars