Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Streets of Darkness by A. A. Dhand

This is a brilliant novel, perhaps one of the best crime thrillers I have ever read. Seriously. Read this book. Googling it afterwards, I found that this is the author's debut, e.g. his first published novel. I also found that it has met with rave reviews and been compared to The Wire, Luther, and other popular fictional crime fiction shows. My own verdict? All that and more.

Streets of Darkness follows Inspector Harry Virdee, a detective of Sikh origin on the Bradford force. The novel starts off with Virdee on suspension. He has a temper and assaulted someone who insulted his wife. This forms part of the backstory to the character, for Harry is married to Saima, a British Muslim. Her family disapproved of her marrying a Sikh, while his family was equally against him marrying a Muslim. Both have been disowned from their families and suffered violent repercussions for their love match.

While out running, Harry happens upon the body of one of Bradford's most prominent sons, a businessman who recently won a seat representing Bradford in Parliament. He's been crucified and a Swastika has been etched into his body. All signs point to far right involvement and with the Bradford race riots of 2011 still fresh in everyone's memory this is obviously an incredibly sensitive investigation. Harry's boss asks him to investigate off the books and this leads to him uncovering a sinister plot involving drugs, possible police corruption, racism.

I don't want to give too much away, but the author juggles all these different strands with aplomb. The plot is tight, the characters compelling and three dimensional. Often people say that a sense of place is important to a crime novel. All too often this is taken literally and authors spend copious amounts of time describing locations. Streets of Darkness gives you a feel for Bradford but in a much more nuanced way than the usual travelogue. Instead the author paints a vivid psycho-political portrait of a city with deep schisms. Again, to hark back to that analogy with The Wire, I felt the author did for Bradford what David Simon did for Baltimore: here is a city in terminal decline, riven by de-industrialisation, poverty and social exclusion.

If you haven't already gathered I absolutely loved this book. And what is more, I have since learnt about the author, A. A. Dhand. He's a pharmacist by trade. Bradford born and raised, he says he's spent his life observing the city from behind his shop counter. All I can say is what an eye he must have. In an interview he also says that this book was ten years in the writing (from conception to publication) and he speaks about the challenges of breaking through to the mainstream. As an aspiring crime novelist myself, I find him an inspiration. I just hope that my own efforts can come near to matching his. Needless to say I can't wait to read the sequel to Streets of Darkness, if it's half as good as his debut it'll be a fantastic read.

5 out of 5 stars

Crisis by Frank Gardner

Frank Gardner is one of the BBC's most respected journalists, a foreign correspondent who is now one of the corporation's leading Security Correspondents. He's a regular face on BBC News reporting on terrorism, the intelligence services, the various wars and conflicts in the Middle East. So it was with much interest that I read Crisis, the author's debut novel.

Our protagonist is Luke Carlton, a former SBS soldier now under short term contract to the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). After an MI6 intelligence officer is found stabbed to death in the Colombian jungle, SIS sends Luke out to investigate (as well as his military background, he spent much of his early childhood in the country and speaks fluent Spanish). Luke quickly discovers that Benton (the murdered officer) was onto a lead concerning a meeting between one of the country's most ruthless cartels and a mystery party of South Asian men. Investigating further, and after surviving a run in with the cartel, he discovers ominous warnings of a delivery from North Korea to the cartel, a "gift" for the British whose intelligence services have done so much to thwart the cartel's business. What follows is a heart-in-mouth tale of Luke Carlton's hunt for whatever it is the Cartel wish to deliver to the streets of Britain.

There is much to admire in Gardner's debut novel. While Luke Carlton isn't the most original protagonist, he's effective enough. Supporting characters are well drawn, Luke's colleagues in SIS, such as Sid Khan, the head of Counter-Terrorism, being particularly memorable. Luke's girlfriend Elise, while not particularly central to the plot, is also portrayed well, in particular Gardner shy's away from the trap of making a her a mere damsel in distress when the cartel inevitably comes calling. 

With his experience reporting on the Middle East and terrorism, the author could well have played it safe and set his debut novel against such a backdrop. There would be nothing wrong with this of course, and as Crisis is likely to be the first in a recurring series, I would be surprised if Luke didn't tackle such issues in future outings. As it is his first novel deals with international drug cartels and Weapons of Mass Destruction. It makes for a refreshing and memorable angle and the author is to be applauded for the novelty of the plot.

One last point I would praise Frank Gardner for his realistic portrayal of Britain's intelligence agencies, their strengths and limitations. Some authors writing such thrillers portray a world of James Bond super-spies, working for organisations with limitless resources. While Luke Carlton is certainly able, he's not superman, at one point being captured and tortured. Similarly, MI6 has to call upon the greater resources of the American CIA and NSA to get the job done, and liaise with the Colombian security services as well. This makes for a far more real and nuanced portrayal of international relations than appears in many similar works in the genre.

All in all, Frank Gardner's Crisis is a good, solid thriller; it's a great debut and on the strength of this book I look forward to reading any sequels.

4 out of 5 stars.

The Killing Files (The project Trilogy 2) - by Nikki Owen

This is the second in Nikki Owen's trilogy about an autistic doctor, Maria Martinez, and her attempts to escape The Project, an offshoot of MI5. In the first novel (originally titled The Spider in The Corner of the Room and since re-titled Subject 375) we learnt that The Project's task was to cultivate the unique skills, mathematical, logical computational, etc, of gifted autistics in the fight against terror. Martinez had been cultivated since childhood, The Project operating under the guise of a treatment centre. It was a good premise and one which made the first book a compelling read.

The Killing Files picks up where the original ended. Dr Martinez has escaped the clutches of The Project and is hiding out. She is plagued by memories of her time under The Project's sanction however, in particular someone she recalls being led to their death. Needless to say The Project catches up with her and she needs to delve further into the organisation's secrets in order to put a stop to them once and for all.

While I gave the first novel a five-star review, I did express concerns as to whether Owen could stretch the premise to a series and whether credibility might be stretched too far. Unfortunately, while The Killing Files is certainly an entertaining read, I feel some of my concerns have been borne out. As Owen fleshes out the details of the conspiracy various credibility issues that were present, albeit nigglingly so in the original, are brought to the forefront. The Project is an offshoot of MI5, the UK's domestic Security Service, yet it operates globally. Where is MI6, the UK's foreign intelligence service in all this? Where is GCHQ, the cyber/signals intelligence agency? The project itself would be a hugely expensive undertaking, yet anyone with a passing knowledge of the UK's intelligence agencies knows that while their funding is generous by UK standards, their budgets are dwarfed by those of the US and Russia and it is unlikely that they could afford anything so ambitious.

Another issue linked to the above is that the project operates globally and has bases all over the globe (certainly in Spain and Switzerland according to the novel) yet nowhere are the intelligence agencies of these nations hinted at. Are we to believe that they just haven't noticed this activity on their soil? Does the author assume that British Intelligence is so far ahead of these nations agencies that they don't have a clue?

I know this trilogy is not really meant to be from the spy thriller genre as such, more that of the conspiracy thriller. Arguably it's written in such a way as to encourage one to suspend their disbelief. I get that it's not meant to reflect the real world of MI5/British Intelligence. But while I was able to do that while reading the first one, Owen just stretches the concepts too far in The Killing Files and I found suspension snap.

An unrelated but equally galling issue I had was with her treatment of the main character. Apparently The Project have trained as an assassin, with unarmed combat skills, yet throughout the text she's oddly inept at defending herself. Then there's the allies she made in the first novel keep treating her with kid gloves. I get the fact that Dr Martinez has extreme Asperger's, but does she really have to have a panic attack every second page? And do her colleagues really have to ask her whether she's OK every second sentence?

This review may come across as over-harsh and I apologise for that. For all its faults The Killing Files is an enjoyable read. It certainly is worth reading if you enjoyed the first novel. But the author really needs to pull back on some of the fantastical aspects in the final novel, or else explain them or I fear that the promise of the first book might be frittered away.

2 out of 5 stars.