Sunday, 20 November 2016

On Edge by Albert Ashforth

There’s much to recommend this book. The author, Albert Ashforth, has military experience and served with the US military in various postings overseas. Then later he returned to service as a military contractor, taking postings in Bosnia, Macedonia, Germany, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Her certainly knows his stuff and this is amply demonstrated throughout the text which shines with authenticity.

That said, however, I struggled to get through this book. In fact, I found reading it a chore. A big part of this was because I read a review eBook copy, provided to me by the review service NetGalley. This is usually not a problem, NetGalley providing review copies to book bloggers like myself which are in every way as good as the final product sold to the reader. On this occasion, something went wrong. I don’t know if it was the publisher’s fault or NetGalley’s but the eBook I was provided, the entire text was littered with random digits. There is a review on Amazon dated 13th September 2016 complaining of the same thing, so it is not just me who had this problem. I contacted the publishers to inform them of this and received no response.

So, I ploughed on, read the novel as best I could. On Edge is basically a procedural set in Afghanistan. In the draw down days of the American involvement there, an American officer is shot and killed by an Afghan soldier, a green-on-blue killing, something that has become a real problem for ISAF forces. Green-on-blue killings are yet another insurgency tactic, the Taliban infiltrating the nascent Afghan security services and then turning on their Western mentors, or the Taliban threatens the family of an existing Afghan soldier, forcing them to do their bidding. Anyhow, in this case our protagonist, Alex Klear, a military contractor, is hired to go back to Afghanistan and investigate this killing. From the outset, he’s given reason to believe it’s not as simple as a green-on-blue, not least by the insistence of his superior that he familiarise himself with the recent massive fraud committed at the Kabul Bank.

Much of the plot of On Edge is based on real events. The fraud and subsequent collapse of the Kabul Bank is real, one of the biggest, if not the biggest, frauds ever perpetuated on a bank in the world. Over a billion dollars of US money was embezzled by corrupt Afghan banking officials and much of the money was never recovered. Similarly, green-on-blue killings do occur and are a huge problem. The author clearly knows Afghanistan and many of the locations and events depicted in the novel feel real.

On Edge is a slow burning novel, it starts slowly and continues at this pace. This probably wouldn’t be a problem but with the problems I had with the formatting (see above) I found that it dragged. But there were other problems I had with this book which I think had nothing to do with the formatting.

I found the author’s depiction of the protagonists’ relationship with women problematic. Every woman is described by Alex Klear as sexy in some way. This reaches its nadir when two assassins have him at gunpoint, they’re literally about to kill him and he still describes the female assassin as “sexy”. Really? You’re held at gunpoint, about to die and you notice how attractive someone is? More generally, this plethora of sexy women is a problem that blights the genre more generally to the point where it’s become a rather tired cliché. Why in every thriller are all the women sexy? Do intelligence agencies, terrorist groups, and others not hire ordinary, regular women? And why are only female characters’ attractiveness commented on? Why not the men?

But the most galling thing is when Alex’s drink is spiked by one of main female characters, ostensibly to get him into bed. He manages to get out of that situation but then reflects that he forgives her, as he should be honoured that she wants to bed him so bad. Really? Seriously? Somebody spikes your drink with Rohypnol or Ketamine and you just shrug it off as one of those things? He doesn’t conclude that she’s a bunny boiler with serious issues, he doesn’t conclude that she’s seriously dangerous and to be avoided at all costs. Nope, he just takes it in his stride, thinks this is ok, a compliment.

Another issue I had was with his description of Afghans. As mentioned, the author has clearly been to Afghanistan, clearly knows the country. But his description of Afghans was, well, for wont of a better word, colonial. Throughout the novel American characters talk about how the Afghans have different values, that they, the Americans, can never truly hope to understand them. There’s talk of the Afghans being corrupt and dishonest, disloyal and ungrateful. While this undoubtedly reflects the opinion of some of the American and allied soldiers out there, and the author is simply reflecting that in the narrative, at no point is this challenged by anyone, not even the protagonist.

Linked to this is the notion of the “noble savage”. There is a tribal leader who rescues the protagonist at one point and is clearly a “good” Afghan and the author talks here about the code of the Pashtuns, Pastunwali. But it’s all done in an overly-simplistic way with little nuance. It reminded me of the way British novelists at the time of Empire might have written about the natives of India or Africa. This is reinforced when the protagonist goes to Dubai and uses Pashtunwali to force another Afghan to part with vital information on the bank fraud, information the man was trying to sell for twenty-five million euros. The protagonist and the woman he is working with (yet another sexy femme fatale) tell us that the Afghan had no choice but to part with the information and miss out on the twenty-five million. Really? This character has turned his back on life in Afghanistan, gone to Dubai to make his fortune. Are we meant to believe that because he’s Afghan he suddenly reverts to being bound by tribal honour?  

If all this sounds critical, perhaps I’m being overly harsh. This is a well-written procedural and there’s much here to like. The protagonist, Alex Klear, is generally likeable. The plot, while slow moving, is interesting enough. The blend of fact and fiction with the Kabul Bank fraud and the very real problem of green-on-blue killings is original. Perhaps if the formatting hadn’t been such a problem I would have enjoyed it more, perhaps the issues I’ve highlighted above wouldn’t have seemed so galling. As it is however, I can only award this novel two out of five stars.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Under the Channel by Giles Pétel

This is a really odd book. Its description implies it’s going to be a crime novel. The body of a Scotsman is found on a Channel Tunnel train that has just arrived in France. The victim, John Burny, has been strangled. The case lands in the lap of Lieutenant Roland Desfeuileres of the French police who sets about investigating. So far all run of the mill, no surprises here. But the reader quickly realises that this is not the usual crime thriller/police procedural.

The first part of the novel follows the victim, he’s a gay estate agent, a hedonist who lives his life to the full. He’s single, sleeps around, spends money like there’s no tomorrow. He regularly catches the train to Paris for a long weekend of excess. After his murder, the book changes tack and we are now following Lieutenant Roland Desfeuileres. He’s in something of a rut, with a marriage that is stale and increasingly loveless. Just before he’s handed the case of Burny’s murder, Roland tries to reignite the spark to his marriage with comic, albeit disastrous results.

This triggers something of a midlife crisis in French detective and walks out on his wife and travels to London, ostensibly to solve the murder of Burny. But he does no real investigating. Instead he begins to walk in the dead man’s footsteps, increasingly trying to live his life and get inside the man’s head. He becomes obsessed with Burny, jealous of the lifestyle he had, and in effect decides to become him.

Under the Channel is best not considered a crime novel at all, but real the study of a man living a midlife crisis. On its own terms Under the Channel is not a bad book at all, entertaining and thought provoking on philosophical level. It strains credibility on a number of occasions but then I don’t think it was ever intended to be realistic as such. Some of the text, terms of phrase, etc., can be odd, but that might be down to the translation. 

All in all, this is an OK book, it’s not brilliant or earth shattering, but it’s contemplative, quirky, and more than a little different.

3 out of 5 stars. 

Wicked Game by Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson, the author, is a former soldier and police officer. His biography doesn’t tell us much about his time in the army, but as a police officer he was “blown off his feet at the London Baltic Exchange bombing in 1993, and one of the first police officers on the scene of the 1982 Regent's Park bombing, Matt was also at the Libyan People's Bureau shooting in 1984 where he escorted his mortally wounded friend and colleague, Yvonne Fletcher, to hospital.” Unsurprisingly after such experiences, he suffered PTSD after retiring, and it was this that started him writing, he began recording his experiences as an aid to recovery. Later he turned this writing into a novel, Wicked Game.

The reason I recount all this is because it explains why Wicked Game is a strange beast to begin with, almost a hybrid. Prologue aside, the first part of the novel deals with Robert Finlay, the protagonist, deciding to join the army, his military service, recruitment to the police and later Royalty Protection. This part of the novel reads like a traditional ex-forces biography and it’s hard to avoid concluding that this part basically recounts the author’s own experiences. But then the novel takes a drastic turn and morphs into a high-octane thriller.

The basic plot of this latter section (approximately the second two thirds of the novel) is that someone, possibly IRA terrorists, is targeting police officers for murder. Most of them are killed in car bombings but some are ambushed in shootings. It soon transpires that the officers concerned are all ex-SAS, but is there another, deeper, link? Were they all also involved in the famous 1980 Iranian Embassy Siege?

Once Wicked Game gets going there are twists and turns aplenty throughout. While the writing is occasionally stilted, particularly the more personal scenes recounting the relationship between the protagonist and his wife, this is all handled with aplomb and the author certainly had me turning the pages. I don’t want to give too much more away, for the author has penned a highly original novel. This is more than the usual special forces thriller about terrorist plots and the fight to stop them. Rather Matt Johnson has come up with a plot that’s highly original and certainly took me by surprise.

While Wicked Game started life as aid to the author’s recovery, I’m pleased to learn that he’s written a sequel which Orenda Books, his publisher will be releasing shortly. I for one look forward to learning what Robert Finlay gets up to next.

4 out of 5 stars.