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