Picking up nuggets of tradecraft — insider expertise — is one of the pleasures of reading a fine thriller. In The Stranger (Hodder and Stoughton, £16.99), author Simon Conway shares plentiful details about the workings of mines and explosives — and how to deploy them when defending a fortified position. A former British army officer, Conway now works for the Halo Trust, a mine-clearing charity. He puts his real-life experience demining war zones to excellent use in this thought-provoking novel.
The narrative roams from Assad’s dungeons in Syria through Iraq, a refugee camp in Jordan, Westminster’s corridors of power and the back streets of London’s East End, all the while asking tough questions about how we fight the “war on terror”. The scene-setting feels real, the sense of danger is deep and unsettling and the characters are well-drawn. There is too much background before the story properly takes off, but the protagonist, Jude, an MI6 officer, is engaging and brave.
Ride or Die (HarperCollins, £12.99) is the third outing for Jay Qasim, and confirms Khurrum Rahman’s place in the first division of new British thriller writers. Qasim is a reluctant spy for MI5, reporting on Islamic radicals. As a drug dealer from suburban west London, he can open doors closed to the agency’s more traditional recruits. He loves his mum and would like to be left alone. But he is not. The story goes at a fine pace and Qasim is a nuanced, sympathetic protagonist.
What lifts this trilogy is Qasim’s voice — street-smart, sharply observed, with snappy dialogue — and Rahman’s very human cast of characters. Nor does he shy away from uncomfortable truths: “It was a thriving Muslim community,” he writes of an area in Blackburn, “unashamedly proud at being segregated.”
The Order (HarperCollins, £20) takes an unusual path for a spy thriller starring the head of Mossad, but as ever, Daniel Silva does not disappoint. Gabriel Allon is on holiday with his wife and family when the Pope dies suddenly. The two men were old friends, brought together in part by a desire for Catholic-Jewish dialogue, and the Pope was writing a letter to Allon when he passed away.
It’s soon clear he was murdered so that the Order of St Helena, a shadowy, ultra-Catholic brotherhood, can take over the Vatican and thus the global church. There is some clunky dialogue about the Vatican’s historical responsibility for the anti-Semitism that eventually led to the Holocaust, but overall The Order is an engaging read.
In The Sandpit (Harvill Secker, £16.99), John Dyer returns to Oxford after many years working in Brazil as a foreign correspondent. He spends his days at the library and stretches his budget to the limit to put his son Leandro through private school. But his uneventful life is upended when Rustum Marvar, an Iranian scientist, and his son — Leandro’s schoolmate — vanish. The Sandpit is marketed as a literary thriller, but Nicholas Shakespeare, and his publishers, need a better handle on the thriller side of things.
After 150 or so pages of preamble, Marvar eventually disappears, having handed Dyer the secrets of his research, but he should have been gone by page 20 or 30. There are descriptions of Oxford streets, inner monologues and — the now standard, among bien pensant authors — sideswipes about President Trump and Brexit voters. There is very little action, although the darker inner workings of the British state are neatly shown and the pace picks up later in the book.
Dull suburbia can be a dramatic backdrop if there is sufficient menace, as Rod Reynolds shows in Blood Red City (Orenda, £8.99), a fine example of London noir.
Much of this accomplished political thriller about dirty money, murder and corruption takes place up and down the Northern line. Never has Brent Cross station looked so terrifying.
There is also menace aplenty in The Englishman (Head of Zeus, £18.99). Rarely does a thriller writer put his protagonist through such ordeals as David Gilman does to Raglan, a former soldier in the French Foreign Legion. After taking on Islamic terrorists in sub-Saharan Africa, Raglan is recruited by MI6 in an off-the-books operation that takes him through the world of organised crime in London and then to Russia.
The pace is relentless, the action and fight scenes superbly choreographed and Raglan is nicely complex: an action man with inner depths. Like all determined heroes, from Odysseus onwards, Raglan goes on a perilous journey — in his case to a Siberian penal colony. Its inner workings — and the advice of Yefimov, a fellow inmate, on how to survive — are deftly drawn. The Englishman is a cracking, finely crafted thriller. I’m looking forward to Raglan’s next outing.
Adam LeBor is the author of ‘The Reykjavik Assignment’
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