Thursday, 18 August 2016

Cold by John Sweeney

I really wanted to like this book, really I did. In fact, I read on, even when it was clear that I wasn't enjoying it, that it wasn't doing it for me, desperately trying to find some redeeming features. But I'm afraid the demands of book blogging and book reviewing mean that I always have a long backlog of titles and at 50% I decided I could no longer carry on.

The author John Sweeney is a veteran BBC journalist and one of my favourite correspondents. His reporting over the years has been fearless - a clichéd description perhaps, but one that he has truly earned. His pursuit of the cant of Scientology most infamously made him a YouTube star with that clip of him losing it, but long before that he was taking on the likes of Saddam Hussein. John Sweeney's work was in large part responsible for overturning the convictions of Sally Clark, Angela Cannings and Donna Anthony, three women falsely imprisoned for killing their children; Sir Roy Meadow, the paediatrician and expert witness who testified at their trials being temporarily struck off the GMC's Medical register. More recently he fronted the BBC Panorama investigation into the News of the World's "fake Sheikh", Mazher Mahmood.

So John Sweeney is a big fish in the investigative journalism world and a man I hugely admire. Cold isn't his first foray into fiction either, he's also penned a well-received romance, Elephant Moon. I haven't read Elephant Moon, romance not really being my thing, but when his thriller Cold hit the shelves I was hoping that what I had heard about his earlier literary efforts, combined with his journalism, would mean a cracking page turner awaited me.

But unfortunately this is not the case. Cold is a long, meandering mess of a read. Having got through half of the book I can't really give even an approximation of the plot, which is not a good thing. The characters are two dimensional and often clichéd. Russian gangsters act like cartoon Russian gangsters; English intelligence officers are ludicrously upper class; the women in the novel are femme fatales, but obviously so. Many scenes are so ridiculous as to be laughable. For example, at one point the main character, Joe Tiplady, and a femme fatale are being held by British Intelligence. Their lives are under threat so the spooks hold Windsor Castle! Really, in Windsor Castle! They try to escape from there and Joe guesses that a tracking device has been placed in his dog's collar, so he somehow manages to catch a fox and put it around the fox's neck. Next chapter a hunt is chasing the fox only to come across guys in suits who have tranquillised the animal. And these men are armed, one with a bazooka. Why? Why would British intelligence/police (it's not clear who these people are) turn up in the English countryside with a bazooka? It just makes no credible sense.

John Sweeney is not the first BBC Correspondent to try his or her hand at fiction. Many, such as Gavin Esler of Newsnight fame, have been well received. Some, like James Naughtie of Radio 4's Today, and Andrew Marr have been less so. I am sad to say that John Sweeney has very much fallen into the latter camp. To be sure there were some scenes that read well, and he might well make a good thriller writer yet (a second Joe Tiplady thriller is due out in 2017). But my worry is that he needs guidance that he's not getting. He needs a good editor, a literary agent and publisher who are not afraid to sit him down and take him through the manuscript with a marker pen. My fear though is that as a 'big name', they are either too afraid to confront him, or too cynical (after all, there will always be some fans willing to buy his work).

I hope I'm wrong. I hope he can learn from this and write a better thriller next time. As it stands I can only give this novel one star.

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