Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Birdwatcher by William Shaw

The Birdwatcher is the first book of the author’s that I’ve read and I have to say that I’m impressed. Set on a desolate patch of isolated Kent coast it tells the story of Police Sergeant William South, a keen birdwatcher, who arrives at the scene of a brutal murder, only to find that it’s a close friend, beaten and stuffed into a trunk. With him when he makes this grim discovery is Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi, newly arrived from the Met from where she transferred, a talented officer keen to make a good first impression.

It soon transpires that the murder victim, William’s neighbour Bob Reyner, a friend he used to go birding with, has been living a lie, complete with fake sister and make believe past as a school teacher. Early on, Donnie Fraser, a drifter from Northern Ireland and a ghost from Sergeant South’s past is fingered for the crime, and South becomes convinced that Donny didn’t do it. What follows is a twin investigation, the official one led by Cupidi, and South’s own, more tentative, private one.

There is much to contend this book. I liked how the protagonist William South wasn’t your usual detective, instead he’s a neighbourhood beat cop, uncomfortable in this world of CID investigation. Early on we also learn that he has a past, that he grew up amongst the troubles of Northern Ireland and murdered his father. The author successfully uses this to hang a pall of foreboding over events, but is careful not to overdo it. Capidi, the single mother of a teenage daughter, is also well drawn, as is her daughter ZoĆ« who takes to birding in the same way South did, to avoid troubles at home and at school.

To be sure there are a fair few coincidences and loose ends left open in this book. Just why was Donnie Fraser, a man from South’s past in Northern Ireland in Kent? Towards the end we learn that he might have been looking for South. Well OK, but how did he get mixed up in events? This is never adequately explained. Similarly, while the mystery of who Bob Reynor was and why he was murdered is finally solved, we never learn why his entire past was fabricated. It’s kind of explained but we don’t learn who he was, prior to the relationships that got him killed. None of this ruined the book for me and they were only nagging issues, but still.

In conclusion, this was an enjoyable and intelligent thriller and I have no hesitation in recommending it to others.

4 out of 5 stars

Undercover by Joe Carter

Undercover by Joe Carter is the biography of a Metropolitan Police undercover officer who served in the Met’s S010, which at the time was the main undercover unit (apparently it’s been renamed and amalgamated with other units since then). Undercover purports to give the reader an honest insight into this world, though on the back cover the author warns: “This is the truth, the whole truth, but sometimes not the entire truth of my life.”

I’ve read a fair few biographies of undercover police officers and on the whole have been left unimpressed. While I understand that not everything can be disclosed (probably far from everything to be fair), books of this sort are often deeply unsatisfactory for this very reason. And so while I approached the publishers for a copy of this book it was more in hope than expectation.

Unfortunately, like previous undercover officer’s who’ve gone public, Joe Carter failed to deliver. The same problem that blight previous officers’ work lets this one down also. Operations are hinted at and then not mentioned again. Situations are outlined and then the reader is left guessing. For example, at one point the author discusses how his services were requested in Northern Ireland. He went over there and after the briefing one of the local coppers whispered to him that they knew he was Catholic and therefore he would be on his own on the street, no one would back him up. Joe decided to sabotage the operation (understandably) so as not to put himself at risk, by telling everyone when he got back that the targets had got cold feet. This is an interesting story, right? Could easily be fleshed out. But no, that’s it, end of chapter, time to move on.

To be fair, the bulk of the book focuses on one long-term operation. Joe goes undercover amongst a set of drug-dealing gangsters. He has a fake wife, another undercover whose job is to run a pawn shop, attracting all the local ne’er-do-wells, burglars and thieves to drop off all their dodgy ill-gotten gains. Once more, none of what follows is adequately explained. They go to a bar and just so happen to get chatting to a major drug dealer who introduces Joe into a wider set of drug traffickers. Once again, I understand that everything can’t be explained, but are we really supposed to believe this? Would it really endanger sources/methods to explain how they met a little more convincingly?

To be sure this isn’t a bad book, but the way it is written encouraged me to speculate. None more so than the relationship between Joe and his fake wife, the undercover cop Emma. Earlier on in the book, Joe confesses that his undercover work cost him his wife and family. The way Joe describes his relationship with Emma, I would be very surprised if they weren’t having an affair. At no point does he say he did and I could be doing the two of them a disservice, but the way Joe has written his account makes it appear that they were. Of course this isn’t important, the book is about undercover policing, not the two officer’s private lives. But perhaps this is a telling indictment of the book: that so uninspiring was it that I was left speculating as to whether the main characters were shagging.

Another problem I had with the book was that none of the target’s Joe pursued appeared to be that dangerous. Yes they were drug dealers, and yes they moved kilos rather than the small amounts a user might buy, but they seem from his description as kind of dull. When one thinks of undercover officers, one thinks of them arrayed against the likes of Al-Capone or the Kray’s, and these people certainly weren’t. Again, this might be due to the secrecy Joe had to observe while writing the book, perhaps he had to dilute his descriptions so as not to give anything away, but reading his account I was left underwhelmed.
In conclusion this is an OK book. But like many such accounts it’s a deeply unsatisfactory read. This might not be the author’s fault and he may well have been restrained by the confidentiality that his job necessarily involved, but unfortunately these constraints scuppered what could otherwise have been a remarkable book.

2 out of 5 stars

Counterattack: The West’s Battle Against the Terrorists by Christopher Dobson and Ronald Payne

This is a very dated book, first published in the UK in 1982. So it precedes the events of modern terrorism: 9/11, 7/7 and 21/7, al Qaeda and ISIS. That said, it is an interesting read, not least as a gauge of the thinking of the time.

The IRA, PLO, and state-sponsored terrorism were the order of the day and this book details the early and tentative approaches the Western powers (countries covered include the United States Britain, France, West Germany - the book was written pre-unification - and Israel) took to counter the threats they faced.

Much of what is included in these pages appears in today’s world to be rather quaint. For example, in the section on West Germany we learn that there was a computer system centred in the town of Wiesbaden, nicknamed “The Komissar”, which logs every item of information - addresses, contacts, etc, of every terrorist and other serious criminal. This is divulged to the reader in breathless tones, and to be fair, it probably was a big deal at the time. But now of course this is commonplace, every police force in England has access to the HOLMES system, which does just that, and in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations we can be sure that the world’s security services do much, much, more.

But this book is not just historical trivia. Much of the pages detail the emergence of the counter-terror units that in today’s world we sadly take for granted. The section on the birth of Germany’s GSG9 (the federal police equivalent of the SAS) in genuinely interesting, as is the section on the French experience with Algerian terrorism.

In conclusion, this is a dated but interesting read, well worth the investment if you have a real interest in the origins of today’s architecture of counter-terror.

3 out of 5 stars