This is the author’s second novel and follows on from his debut Wicked Game. Once again, we join ex-SAS officer and Metropolitan Police Inspector Robert Finlay, who in the aftermath of the murder of former SAS soldiers in the first novel, is something of a toxic quality in the Met. Colleagues see him as a bullet magnet and many don’t want to work with him, while some of his superiors guess that he took it into his own hands to put a stop to the murders and don’t fully trust him. So not sure what to do with him, he’s assigned to a unit investigating sex-trafficking. This isn’t only the decision of the police, for Finlay’s MI5 liaison, Toni Fellowes, has her own agenda. She helps engineer his transfer to the unit, and his choice of holiday destination for a recuperation break to deal with his PTSD, as she needs help infiltrating a Romanian family who own the publishing house that has printed a controversial tell-all memoir by a former soldier.
To say Deadly Game is brilliant would do it an injustice. This is one of the best thrillers I’ve read in years. I subscribe to the author’s round-robin email and in one he expressed his fears about writing a second novel. Could it ever live up to the first? Might it be a disappointment? I reviewed Wicked Game and while it was very good, it suffered from certain problems. Most noticeably it was a novel of two halves, the first half reading like a memoir, the second like a thriller. Deadly Game has no such qualms, it knows exactly what it is: a thriller. While it is undoubtedly based on the authors long experiences as both a soldier and a police officer and Johnson has clearly researched the issues well, the book is all the better for having a strong narrative purpose from the outset.
There are several threads running through Deadly Game which ring remarkably true. Operation Cyclone features strongly, the CIA-led effort to arm and train the Afghan mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviet occupation. While a character called Chad Collins, the author of the tell-all book MI5 want to put a stop to, is clearly modelled on Philip Sessarego, aka Tom Carew, the author of a book called Jihad! Sessarego had claimed he was a member of the SAS who in the eighties was tasked with infiltrating Afghanistan and training the mujahedeen, only to be exposed as a fake. As with the character of Collins in Deadly Game, Sessarego had in fact never passed SAS selection.
This brings me to an issue with Deadly Game, one that plagues many a thriller. In the novel, the intelligence services are desperate for Operation Cyclone not to be known to the wider public, fearing the consequences. This is a feature of many a thriller – the intelligence services/government’s fear of exposure and a willingness to do anything to prevent it. But due to a combination of public apathy and cynicism, the public rarely react to such things. Operation Cyclone is now well known and has caused hardly a stir. Similarly, as far back as 1998, revered SAS legend Ken Connor, published a history of the SAS in which he revealed members of the service had trained mujahedeen fighters in Scotland. This again features in Deadly Game as something the public must never know, but upon publication of Connor’s book, reaction was muted. More recently, we’ve had inquiries which revealed the Government misled us over Iraq and Libya, once again with little public reaction. While Mervyn King the former governor of the Bank of England, is on record as saying he can’t understand why there hasn’t been a greater reaction to the banks malfeasance in the financial crisis. Yes, people have been angry, but there has been very little in the way of actual action.
So, reading Deadly Game, as with other thrillers, I wondered whether the intelligence services really would go to such efforts to prevent the truth from coming out. If recent history teaches us anything, it’s that the establishment really has little to fear. Though perhaps this is to look at things the wrong way. As Mervyn King’s comments show, perhaps the establishment expects more and are as surprised as the rest of us when they get away with their wrongdoing. And maybe the public has the last laugh after all, for what was the rise of Farage, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, if not a reaction to all the illegality and lies told us over the years? Perhaps the intelligence services, while not knowing the exact form the anger will take, are right to fear exposure, knowing that in some way the drip, drip, drip will come back to haunt us all.
One niggling point I must mention, and really this is the only flaw I found in Deadly Game, the author repeatedly referred to a female firearms officer as a “WPC”. With respect to the author, it shows how long he’s been out of the service as female police officers are now simply PCs like their male counterparts. This is a minor criticism and does not reflect the author’s portrayal of women in the novel. There are numerous, strong female characters in Johnson’s books and in fact it was for this reason the use of WPC was so galling. The anachronism stuck out because the book is so good and I only mention it in the hope he will take notice for the third title.
As I hope that I have conveyed in this review, Deadly Game is a fantastic novel. It is a page-turning thriller but so much more. It really made me think about the world, not just terrorism, but the lengths the secret state will go to to prevent secrets from spilling, whether they are justified, the implications on public life. I can’t recommend this book enough and can’t wait until the third instalment
5 out of 5 stars.