Friday, 16 April 2021

The Old Enemy by Henry Porter


Ex-MI6 officer Paul Samson, the protagonist of the author’s previous two novels (Firefly & White Hot Silence) has been tasked with secretly guarding a gifted young woman, Zoe Freemantle. She’s an analyst working for an opaque international NGO and he is guarding her without her knowledge, volunteering in her workplace so as to be in close proximity to her and following her about the streets. One day, while tailing her, he’s attacked and it seems that he was the target, rather than the woman he is guarding. 
Meanwhile, his old MI6 mentor, Richard Harland, is assassinated while painting in Estonia. This despite the fact he has terminal cancer. And the billionaire philanthropist, Denis Hisami, is poisoned with a nerve agent while testifying before Congress. It quickly becomes apparent that all three events - the attack on Samson himself, the murder of Harland, and the poisoning of Hisami - are all linked.  Samson decides to find out what is going on and soon becomes embroiled in a labyrinthine plot where nothing is as it seems. 
As mentioned, The Old Enemy is the third in the author’s Paul Samson series. While it can be read as a standalone, and it’s not imperative to have read either Firefly or White Hot Silence (the relevant information is drip-fed throughout the narrative of The Old Enemy so that those who haven’t read the previous titles can still follow the plot) it’s much more enjoyable if you have. Luckily, the previous two titles are very well-written, so this is no bad thing. 
These are very topical thrillers: Firefly focused on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, White Hot Silence focused on far-right groups across Europe and from where they get their funding, while The Old Enemy continues this focus and concentrates on Russian interference in the West’s political systems and Russian killings in the US and Europe. 
Like the previous titles, The Old Enemy is skilfully plotted. It’s a fantastic thriller and confirms Henry Porter as a spy novelist at the top of his game. It’s little wonder that the novel comes with a glowing endorsement from Charles Cummings (another leading spy-thriller author) and I can’t recommend this title enough. I have a strong feeling that there will be another Paul Sampson novel at some point, and I for one will certainly read it.

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

How To Betray Your Country by James Wolff


August Drummond is a disgraced British intelligence officer. He’s been drummed out of his job under suspicion of leaking information for moral purposes – information he felt the public or foreign law enforcement should know, and which his employers were keeping secret for their own bureaucratic reasons. He found his conscience after meeting an idealistic activist who he fell in love with, and who challenged his preconceptions. After her death in a traffic accident, and his being forced out of the service, Drummond has sunk into alcoholic despair. He’s taken a job in Turkey, and is on the flight there, when he sees a young man acting suspiciously. Guessing he’s an ISIS recruit on his way to fight in Syria, Drummond follows him when they land. The man is arrested by the Turkish police, but not before he dumps something in a bin. Drummond retrieves it and discovers a note detailing a rendezvous in a cemetery. He guesses the meeting to be with an ISIS facilitator/recruiter and on a whim decides to take the arrested man’s place. Needless to say, things aren’t all they seem, and soon August is out of his depth and in serious trouble.


How to Betray Your Country is the author’s second novel, following on from a brilliant debut, Beside The Syrian Sea. It’s a standalone really, in that the story doesn’t follow on from the tale the debut told, and while the main character and plot of the author’s debut is touched upon, this is a self-contained narrative that can be read on its own. That said, the author plans a third novel, and the trilogy is thematically related, and the novels certainly complement each other. They’re both extremely good books too, and I would recommend them both.


Like with the author’s debut, How to Betray Your Country centres around what happens when an intelligence officer acts against the system. The main character (as with the protagonist of his debut) is not a traitor turned by a foreign power or terrorist group but has his own reasons for his rebelliousness. Both novels do not portray the intelligence services in a good light, which is perhaps (or perhaps not) a surprise, seeing as the author is writing under a pseudonym and the publishers tell us he worked for the UK government for over ten years. Reading between the lines, it appears Wolff might well have worked for the intelligence services himself, and thus perhaps his negative portrayal might be more nearer the mark than the intelligence services themselves would care to admit.


Like Mick Herron’s Slough House series, James Wolff’s novels buck the trend of espionage novels, which tend to portray the intelligence services as all-powerful and their personnel as superhuman James Bonds. Instead, we have all too human people, many incompetent and/or venal, employed by clunking bureaucracies which are as keen to cover up their own errors as they are dangerous plots.  


How to Betray Your Country is a brilliantly written novel and well worth a read. I would recommend the author’s debut as well and look forward to reading the third title in the trilogy whenever it might come.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Repentance by Eloísa Díaz

It’s 2001 in Buenos Aires and Inspector Joaquin Alzada is called to the city morgue after the body of a young woman is found in a dumpster. Getting there is easier said than done because the city is at a standstill due to protesters filling the streets. Argentina is in crisis brought on by near economic collapse and political misrule and it seems the entire country is in revolt. Not Alzada though, as apart from having a job to do (he’s unable to retire because the state can’t afford to pay police pensions) he likes to steer clear of politics. This is something he’s always done (apart from a brief period in his youth), but his reticence is also due to a brush with the forces of the state back in 1981. Then Argentina was in the grip of a military dictatorship, and his activist brother and his brother's wife were abducted. 


Repentance is told in two timeframes: 2001, with Inspector Alzada lumbered with a new partner and investigating the death of the woman in the dumpster, and 1981, when his brother and his wife are disappeared, and he desperately tries to get them back. Both timeframes complement the other and both give an insight into Argentina at the time. Indeed, Repentance is much more about Argentine society than it is about either case – the murdered woman, or the abduction of his brother and his wife – and these events serve more to guide us through their respective periods. It’s an effective method, because while I knew something of Argentine history, Repentance brought these periods to life for me and I feel like the book opens a window into the history of the times.


Repentance is a well-written story that gives a real insight into the twin periods in which the author sets her narrative. Alzada and the other characters are compelling and likeable enough to drive the story forward, and while the plot, especially that set in the 2001 timeline, is somewhat sparse, it’s more than compensated for by the novel’s compelling sense of history and place.


Friday, 2 April 2021

The Khan by Saima Mir


Jia Khan is a successful criminal law barrister. She’s also the estranged daughter of a powerful Bradford-based crime lord, Akbar Khan. The Khan’s are Muslim and of the Pukhtan ethnic group, which hails from Afghanistan and north-west Pakistan. They’re revered in the Pakistani community of Bradford, and rule through the carrot and the stick - enforcing their will and appealing to traditional values, but equally keeping the peace and a lid on petty crime. But when her father is murdered, and her bother abducted, the latter by Andrzej Nowak, an East European crime boss (and Jia suspects he’s responsible for her father’s murder, too), she has to return to the family fold to help. 

This is a book which many have compared to a modern-day Godfather, and the comparison is apt. It’s as much a family saga as it is a crime novel, with Jia Khan the Al Pacino character, e.g. the reluctant prodigal child who ends up rising to the top (I confess to never having read the novel by Mario Puzo, and am basing my remarks on the films). And like The Godfather, we follow Jia as she’s inexorably drawn into the criminality she ran away from, the close knit bonds of family and tradition compelling her to do so to defend those she loves. Though again, without meaning to labour the comparison, just as with Pacino’s character, there’s a sense that Jia is not as reluctant as she at first seems.

There are a couple of niggling issues I had with The Khan. The criminal network she leads finds it a little too easy to outwit the authorities by using Tor and the dark web. In reality, the police, the National Crime Agency, and other enforcement agencies, can track such people down, as recent successes against the Encrochat encrypted phone system and others show. It’s difficult, and many get away with it, but to imply the authorities are clueless of such things, and that such a large criminal organisation as the Khans’ would never be spotted, stretched credulity. That said, this was a minor point and I accept the author engaged in a little creative license, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

There aren’t too many novels which examine organised crime from within the Muslim community, or indeed from Bradford, and this was a book firmly set in that community and environment. It worked well and gave an insight into the close-knit bonds of kinship within those communities. There are several linked issues which the author touched upon too, which added to the rich atmosphere she evoked, such as how Asian youth involved in the Bradford riots of 2001 received harsher penalties than white participants, and how this fostered resentment in those communities. This sort of detail grounded the novel in the area's history and added to its sense of place.

The Khan is an impressive debut, and Saima Mir is an accomplished writer. I look forward to reading whatever she writes next, especially if Jia Khan features in a sequel. 

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Nighthawking by Russ Thomas

This is Russ Thomas’ second novel, and an eagerly awaited sequel to his debut, Firewatching. Once again, we’re in Sheffield with DS Adam Tyler. He’s still heading up the cold case team, but now has a protégé in the guise of DC Mina Rabbani (who was in uniform in Firewatching but has since gained a spot in CID), but it isn’t long before they’re both seconded to a murder inquiry when the body of a woman is discovered buried in the city’s botanical gardens.

The body was unearthed by a nighthawker, a metal detectorist, but one willing to trespass on private land and at night, and keep or not declare their finds. This is a major theme running through the book (hence the title) and several characters are members of a detectorist group and keen nighthawkers. It quickly becomes apparent that the woman is linked to the group and that one or more members might have something to do with her murder. Muddying the water is the fact she was a Chinese national and the daughter of a powerful figure within the Chinese Communist Party, and that she might have been involved in some kind of smuggling operation.

While part of a series, Nighhawking could be read as a standalone. That said, it is far more enjoyable if read after the author’s debut. The events of Firewatching have left their mark on several characters, and it is easier to understand some of their motivations if you know what they went through in the previous title.

Firewatching was an impressive debut and made something of a splash when published. There’s always a concern that the “curse of the second novel” will strike when a debut novelist has made such a mark, but Russ Thomas has no such concerns on that front. Nighthawking is a fantastic follow up, both brilliantly plotted and brilliantly told. This is a great book and I look forward to reading the third in the series whenever Russ is ready to unleash it on the book-reading public.

4 out of 5 stars

The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward


Ted lives in a dilapidated house with his daughter, Lauren, and his cat, Olivia. Their house is at the end of an ordinary street called Needless Street (hence the title) but the windows are all secured with wooden boards, with just small holes drilled into them to see out of. A decade before, a girl called Lulu went missing from a nearby lake, and her family broke apart as a result: the mother walked out on them; the father died of a broken heart; Lulu’s sister, Dee, was left alone with her guilt and self-recrimination. Now Dee believes that Laura (who she hasn’t seen yet, but has heard Ted talking to) is Lulu, and Ted is the man who abducted her sister all those years before. She’s intent on finding the evidence, bringing Ted to some kind of justice, and rescuing her sister.

As least that’s what we think is going on. This is a twisty-turny Gothic horror chiller, told from a variety of perspectives, not least that of the cat, Olivia. While the set up seems straightforward at the start, it isn’t long before readers are unsure of their footing. All the people in the book are unreliable narrators, to use that overused term, and revelations come aplenty as the narrative unfolds.

The Last House on Needless Street has received much praise, not least from Stephen King. The film rights have been optioned and it will come to screens shortly, I’m sure. But I have to say, this novel really didn’t do it for me. I really wanted to enjoy this book, not least because all the buzz told me I should - The Times Thriller of the Month, an Observer Thriller of the Month, a Guardian 2021 in books pick, a Waterstones March 2021  pick, a Red Magazine March 2021  pick, a Refinery 29th March 2021 pick - the list is exhaustive. But I’m afraid to say this book just left me cold. It never seemed to know what it wanted to be - gothic horror? crime thriller? - and I found all the twists and turns confusing.

It was an enjoyable enough read, and lots of people will disagree of course (they already do, look at the plaudits), but for me it just didn’t work.

3 out of 5 stars

The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370 by Florence de Changy

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, with all its 239 passengers and 12 crew, is one of the strangest aviation mysteries of modern times. How could a modern airliner vanish from thin air? The mystery is both jaw-dropping, and in a world where air travel is ubiquitous and something we all take for granted (at least prior to COVID-19, and hopefully in the future too) disconcerting and horrifying. It’s never really been explained, though there is an official narrative of sorts after various inquiries.

In this book, Florence de Changy, a French journalist and foreign corespondent for Le Monde, painstakingly challenges the official narrative of pilot suicide (along with various conspiracy theories) and claims instead the plane was shot down. It’s a great piece of investigative work, and she sources her claims with endnotes in every chapter. 

The problem I have with her work is there is an equally convincing long form article in The Atlantic by William Langewiesche, which argues precisely and convincingly for the suicide theory. Similarly, Blaine Gibson, a man who has found over half the verified pieces of MH370 wreckage to be recovered so far, supports the suicide theory and dismisses this book as a conspiracy theory.

So, as often happens in a world of information at our fingertips, unless the reader conducts the investigation for themselves (and I don't mean reading random Facebook posts and watching Youtube videos, but actually doing the investigative work that Florence de Changy and William Langewiesche presumably have), they’re left unsure who to believe. The two conflicting, and to a layperson, equally convincing, theories about the fate of MH370, are perfect analogies of our times. As someone old enough to remember the dawn of the digital age, I recall being told the internet and social media would empower us with information. In fact, the reverse has happened, and we suffer information overload.

I literally do not know who to believe, Florence de Changy or William Langewiesche; the narrative put forward in this impressively crafted book, that the plane was shot down, or that in the equally impressive Atlantic article, that the pilot or co-pilot committed suicide with all on board. 

4 out of 5 stars