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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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Spy Fiction

SPOOK STREET by Mick Herron

SPOOK STREET - Mick Herron SPOOK STREET

Mick Herron (www.mickherron.com)

John Murray (www.johnmurray.co.uk)

£14.99

When the Berlin Wall fell, David Cartwright was one step away from First Desk, the pinnacle of the British Intelligence Services. Now suffering the onset of dementia, the “Old Bastard”, as he is affectionately known by his grandson, River, may be in danger of revealing secrets that he has kept for over twenty years. When a young man turns up dead on his bathroom floor and David’s grandson disappears, River’s boss is called in to identify the body. It’s obvious that Cartwright has survived a botched hit, but with no idea if it was sanctioned by the Service, Jackson Lamb must play his cards very close to his chest, at least until he can find out exactly what is going on. And with only the “slow horses” to call on, who knows how long that might take?

Spook Street is Mick Herron’s fourth visit to the realms of Jackson Lamb and the assorted misfits and no-hopers that the Intelligence Service assigns to Slough House, out of harm’s way. It’s my first encounter with Herron’s work in general, and the Jackson Lamb series in particular, which is all the answer you need to the eternal question: do I need to have read the first three books? Spook Street presents Herron’s regular cast of characters with a brand new, standalone case, and anything else you need to know to enjoy this smartly-constructed thriller you’ll pick up within the first couple of chapters.

Slough House is a ramshackle building as geographically remote from the Service’s Regent’s Park headquarters as its inhabitants are operationally remote. This is the domain of Jackson Lamb, a drunken, slovenly excuse for a secret agent with questionable hygiene who would be an embarrassment to the Service, assuming he was at liberty to disclose the fact that he worked for them. Over the years, Lamb has amassed a small team, people whose operational readiness ranges from “not anywhere close” to “psychotically keen”, a group of people known to the wider community as the “slow horses”, a play on the name of the building they call home. One of these people is River Cartwright, and it is his connection with the legendary David Cartwright that gives Lamb all the reason he needs to get involved in this latest case.

From the opening pages, Spook Street comes as a pleasant surprise. With its tongue firmly in cheek, the narrative takes a less-than-serious approach to telling the story. The tone is only one of the many features that leads to inevitable comparisons with Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May series, Slough House doing for Britain’s spies what Mornington Crescent has long done for the Metropolitan Police. Readers expecting the next LeCarré or Morgan Jones will likely be disappointed, though as a fan of both, I would urge those readers to stick with it, as they’re likely to be pleasantly surprised by the result: there is a dark heart to Spook Street, a hard-core mystery that belies the light tone, the frequent bouts of comedy. There is a sense of real danger from the beginning that leaves the reader in no doubt that none of these characters – many of whom have shared page space for three books so far – are safe, that no-one is guaranteed to survive until the end, and that a happy ending is far from likely.

The strength of Spook Street – and doubtless, the entire series – lies in Herron’s characters, and their interrelationships. For the book’s first half, Lamb appears as little more than a shape in the background, but there is little doubt that he is the heart and soul of the story. Instantly unlikeable, Lamb wears his odiousness as a badge of honour, but there is no doubt as to where his loyalties lie: this is a man who will do whatever it takes to protect his people, a close-knit group that often feels like the world’s most dysfunctional family. Newcomer J. K. Coe gives the new reader a character to connect to, someone with whom to learn the ropes of this strange new working environment. Herron also widens the scope to examine the wider Intelligence community, introducing a new First Desk and a new head of the Service’s enforcement team, policewoman-turned-spook Emma Flyte, both of whom find their worldview challenged by the existence of Lamb’s team at Slough House.

I very nearly dismissed Mick Herron’s Spook Street as just another spy novel that I could do without. Luckily for me, I ignored my first impressions and find myself richer for the experience. Herron’s irreverent look at the world of spies breathes new life into the genre and his stories deserve recognition alongside the greats of spy fiction. Already preparing to read the first book in the series, Slow Horses, I can recommend Spook Street unreservedly and assure new readers that it’s the perfect jumping-on point for anyone wishing to become familiar with Jackson Lamb & Co. It’s also the perfect alternative for fans of more serious spy fiction and crime thrillers.

INFLUENCES: My Influences by NICHOLAS SEARLE

NICHOLAS SEARLE Name: NICHOLAS SEARLE

Author of: THE GOOD LIAR (2016)

On Twitter: @searlegoodliar

It’s difficult to list the influences on my writing. There are too many and several of them are subliminal rather than conscious. Plus, there’s a risk when you cite influences that you’re inviting comparisons. Definitely not, in my case: I’m looking up at people not seeking to emulate them or imagine I’m on the same level.

Let’s start with the obvious: John le Carré. His key espionage books – apart from the wonderful The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – were published in my adult formative years and seemed to sum so much up for me. I loved the serpentine plots but for me it was the characters and the integral cynicism – concealing idealism – and world-weariness that won me over. And, of course, the prose. I do think that spying is a rich vein for writers to mine, so long as they can do so convincingly. It contains a multitude of our most primal concerns in life. Who can I trust? Am I being disloyal myself? How can I make the right choice when faced with what looks like a range of bad ones? How do I balance heart and head? To see them distilled on the page in this setting can be very enriching. In common with several others, I think that when le Carré attempts to write ‘literary’ fiction (whatever that is) the end result can look mushy – The Naïve And Sentimental Lover being a prime example – and that recently he’s become a bit ‘shouty’ at times. But le Carré off form is often better than many others at the peak of their achievement, and it’s hard to beat the trio of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.

Likewise Graham Greene, who like le Carré breaks the rules and straddles the boundary between what he calls ‘entertainments’ and serious fiction. I think he makes a false distinction and admit to being confused about the differentiations between genres: there’s as much truth for me in The Third Man or Our Man In Havana as there is in The Power And The Glory. If there is one book though that distils the darkness it’s Brighton Rock, still as vividly terrifying and cruel, and modern, as it was back in 1938. And you can trace the lineage back to Conrad: not so much the overblown seafaring epics like Lord Jim, but the much tighter stories that plumb our souls such as The Secret Agent and Heart of Darkness.

THE GOOD LIARI studied languages, so was fortunate enough to have been able to read some of the European classics of the mid-20th century in the original; and I loved their despair and desolation. I’ve a special place for Heinrich Böll and particularly Die Verlorene Ehre Der Katharina Blum (The Lost Honour Of Katharina Blum) and Ansichten Eines Clowns (a pretty poor English translation is long out of print). And I love Camus: the opening of L’Étranger (The Stranger) is possibly the best beginning sentence of any novel I’ve read.

I could go on. It seems perhaps scattergun but I admire immensely P.D. James, Richard Ford and Ian McEwan for the cool precision of their language that somehow conveys emotion. Kent Haruf’s brevity seeps feeling in each gap in the dialogue. And Kate Atkinson. Wow. In Life After Life and A God In Ruins she gives a masterclass in subtlety and complexity conveyed in the simplest of terms. She doesn’t treat the reader as a fool who needs to be led by the nose but challenges all the time and in the course of doing that tells fundamental truths, both about the thing that is fiction and about us.

And I haven’t even begun to describe my influences away from books, in film, TV, theatre and music!…

Nicholas Searle’s novel The Good Liar is out now from Penguin.

THE SEARCHER by Chris Morgan Jones

The Searcher THE SEARCHER

Chris Morgan Jones (www.chrismorganjones.com)

Mantle (www.panmacmillan.com)

£16.99

Isaac Hammer’s world seems to be falling down around him. The offices of his intelligence agency, Ikertu, have been raided by the police, and Ike himself has been arrested. The charge? Obtaining information by illegal means: hacking and phone tapping. But this isn’t Ike’s style, and until the police stormed his offices, he believed it wasn’t the style of ex-employee Ben Webster, whose case the police are investigating. The problem now is that Webster has disappeared while travelling to Georgia for the funeral of a journalist friend. Ike must find him, not only because he is the only person who can save Ike’s skin, and his business, but because Webster’s wife has asked Ike for help. And so Isaac Hammer, the great detective, finds himself in the middle of a country on the verge of civil war, with no idea who is friend, and who is foe.

In his first two novels, An Agent of Deceit and The Jackal’s Share, Chris Morgan Jones introduced us to Ben Webster, a modern-day spy with a knack for getting himself in trouble. For his latest novel, The Searcher, Jones shifts the focus from Webster – who has disappeared even before the novel has begun – to Webster’s boss, Isaac ‘Ike’ Hammer. The novel opens with a series of alternating chapters which interleave Hammer’s dealings with the British police and his ultimate arrest with his arrival in Georgia a number of days later, intent on finding Ben Webster and dragging him back to London if necessary.

It becomes clear very early on that the relationship between Webster and Hammer, which has always been a friendly one, even if Hammer has never really approved of some of Webster’s activities, has been dissolved. Webster has left Ikertu, leaving Hammer hurt and confused in the process, and has set out on his own. When he drops out of sight in Georgia, the obvious assumption is that he has taken a job that has taken him to one of the country’s less-populous areas. It’s understandable, then, that Hammer should bear some anger towards him for forcing him to come and fetch him back to London. It doesn’t take long once he’s in the country for Hammer to realise that Webster’s disappearance might not have been voluntary and, with his driver Koba for company, he picks up his friend’s trail and follows him into the wilderness that marks the border between Georgia and Russia.

In shifting the focus from Webster to Hammer, Jones has also shifted the narrative tone of his writing. No more are we reading the new Le Carré or Deighton, though elements of this earlier tone do still crop up in the story, but rather the new Chandler or, similarity in the lead characters’ names notwithstanding, Spillane. It’s an interesting trick: while these two characters started life in the same place, they’re both very different, and the approach to writing them as central characters shows this difference to best effect: when Webster is in the forefront, we know we can expect an old-fashioned spy story; when Hammer leads, think of the P.I. novels that were prevalent in the middle of the Twentieth Century, and you’ll have a fair idea of what to expect.

Hammer is an unlikely hero, a small dapper man of fifty, though his mind is like a steel trap. He thinks of himself as “the great detective”, and from what we can see as The Searcher progresses, there’s no hyperbole. While the on-going investigation back in London plays on Hammer’s mind throughout the story, it has little bearing on the central plot: the missing Webster, a dead journalist, a terrorist bombing. Jones takes us from the Georgian capital Tbilisi, where daily protests quickly become riots, and where the American Hammer is made to feel less than welcome, to the mountainous and sparsely populated northern region of the country where he finds that, despite the pressures, life moves at a much slower pace.

Unfortunately for Hammer, Jones borrows another trick from the Marlowe novels, which sees his detective beaten almost to a pulp on several occasions. Like Chandler before him, the author seems to take great delight in inflicting pain on the detective, but it’s a tactic that not only serves to show the man’s strength of character, but also to increase the reader’s empathy with him so that we become fully invested in his adventure, and in the life-threatening danger that awaits him at every turn.

Jones’ characterisations are wonderful, and serve to bring the world around Hammer alive, from the loud and opinionated Koba, to the shady government agent Vekua; from the threatening presence of Otar Iosava, to the inexplicably vindictive Detective Inspector Sander. They give context to Hammer himself, his motives and thought processes and show him to be a man of sound moral judgement: perhaps the only thing that separates him from his literary forebears, for whom the word “shady” is often a gross understatement.

With The Searcher Jones shows incredible versatility, looking at his series books through the eyes of a different character, and through the medium of a different, if not entirely unrelated, genre. It will come as no surprise to anyone that has read his earlier books that he succeeds admirably. Well-written, excellent plotting and pace combine to take the unlikeliest of heroes and make him a character that we can believe in and root for. In many ways, Ike Hammer is a more interesting character than Ben Webster, and this reader has high hopes that we’ll see him take the lead again in future. The Searcher should definitely be on your “must read” list, even if you haven’t read Chris Morgan Jones before: it’s an excellent starting place, and opens this talented young author’s work to a whole new world of readers.

LAST DAYS OF THE CONDOR by James Grady

LAST DAYS OF THE CONDOR LAST DAYS OF THE CONDOR

James Grady (www.jamesgrady.net)

No Exit Press (www.noexit.co.uk)

£8.99

This month sees the release of the hotly anticipated sequel to Six Days of the Condor. It has taken forty years, but James Grady has finally revisited his most famous creation in Last Days of the Condor. To celebrate, No Exit Press are running a blog tour for the next two weeks, and I’m extremely happy to have been invited to take part.

 

The man once known as Condor is living and working once more in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. Recently released from a secret CIA insane asylum, and checked on a regular basis by case officers, the man whose name was once Ronald Malcolm is attempting to adjust to the “normal” life of an American man in his sixties. When one of his case officers is crucified over his fireplace, and Condor is framed for the murder, he finds himself once again on the run, a fugitive from the law, and from the combined weight of the USA’s intelligence services. But this time he is not alone: Faye Dozier, the murdered man’s partner, believes in Condor’s innocence and embarks on a secret mission to bring him in alive so that he can once again clear his name.

It is over forty years – both in real time and in James Grady’s fictional Washington, D.C. – since we first met the man whose codename was Condor. Now in his sixties, Condor has a long and dark history of working for the CIA, a history that has been suppressed, in his own mind, to the point that he barely remembers those six days in the early seventies – or much else about his career for that matter – following a stint in a secret CIA insane asylum in Maine. It’s an interesting starting point – when we first meet Condor, we know more about him than he does himself, despite the forty year gap since we last met him. Through Faye, Grady provides us with brief glimpses at Condor’s more recent past, and we begin to slowly understand how he got from nerdy bookworm to one of the Agency’s most valuable and dangerous assets.

There are many parallels with Condor’s earlier outing, but Grady manages to avoid many of the clichés that might have turned Last Days of the Condor from straight sequel into a kind of Die Hard 2 (“How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”) or Lethal Weapon (“I’m too old for this shit!”). This time around, Condor-Vin-Malcolm is much more experienced in tradecraft so his disappearance is much more a planned event than the blind luck that marked much of his first adventure. He also has a benefactor who is both inside and outside the organisations that are hunting him: Sami, a man who is in the city running a training exercise, has a past with both Condor and Faye, and plays a similar role to the unnamed old man from the first novel. There are ulterior motives at work here, and they are slowly revealed to the reader as the novel approaches its climax.

Last Days of the Condor also provides a stark contrast to its 1974 predecessor, and shows how much the world has changed in the interim. Condor’s modern-day flight is made much more difficult – and his hunters’ job conversely much easier – by the technology that we now take for granted: smartphones and GPS, ubiquitous security cameras and a much more real-time news cycle and everything that social media brings to the table. Condor may be on the run for a similar reason, but the experience – for both Condor himself, and for the reader – is vastly different from what we’ve seen before, and what we might have expected.

Grady’s Six Days of the Condor has an interesting history – Grady has been the subject of KGB investigation, and that organisation used his novel as the basis for at least some of their organisational structure. It is, in short, always going to be a tough act to follow, but Grady manages it with some style in this return visit to Condor. Once again, his focus is on the current state of the art, and the possibilities that stem from it. What if? is the question that drives his narrative, and the results show that he has lost none of the edge in the past forty years that made Six Days of the Condor one of the finest espionage novels ever written.

Grady’s writing style does take some getting used to, although it should appeal to fans of James Ellroy. Short, sharp sentence structure and rapid rotation around multiple viewpoints keep the reader on their toes, and keeps the tale interesting. It also gives Grady the chance to reveal some of the details of the missing forty years in Condor’s life while still keeping them suppressed in the central characters own memories. Once the reader gets the rhythm, though, it’s a novel that moves at a breakneck pace, always managing to remain one step ahead of even the most canny reader.

The obvious question is: do you need to read Six Days of the Condor first? The short answer is no: because Condor himself remembers little of what happened that first time around, there is no reason why the reader needs to have the back story, so Last Days works as a standalone novel. The longer answer is, as always, that it makes more sense to read the books in the correct order. Six Days of the Condor is the only book my local library refused to lend me at the tender age of fifteen: too much sexual content, they said. Maybe for the late 1980s, but it’s positively tame compared to much of what is published today. It has taken me twenty-five years to finally get around to reading it, and it is the classic that everyone claims. The back story does bring something else to the reading of Last Days, a book that is destined to become a classic in its own right, setting the adventures of Condor alongside those of George Smiley or James Bond as some of the best spy fiction you’re likely to read.

In short, Last Days of the Condor is everything that readers of Condor’s earlier adventure could have hoped for. Sharp, intelligent and surprisingly funny, it’s a book that builds tension from the first page, and keeps the reader glued to the page until the very last word. Sadly, given the super-spy’s age, it is likely to be Last Days for him; if so, it’s the best send-off any fictional character could have hoped for.

THE ABDUCTION by Jonathan Holt

THE ABDUCTION - Jonathan Holt THE ABDUCTION

Jonathan Holt (www.carnivia.com)

Head of Zeus (headofzeus.com)

£12.99

 

WALL STANDING IS NOT TORTURE.

AT 9 P.M. THIS EVENING, SHE WILL NOT BE TORTURED.

WATCH IT LIVE ON CARNIVIA.

When the teenage daughter of a high-ranking US soldier is abducted from one of Venice’s sex clubs, it seems that the protesters against the new US Air Force base at nearby Vicenza have graduated from nuisance to terrorists. But videos of Mia start appearing on Daniele Barbo’s anonymous website, Carnivia.com, and it quickly becomes clear that there are other motives for the kidnapping. Led to Dal Molin for different reasons, Colonel Aldo Piola and Captain Kat Tapo of the Carabinieri find themselves working together on this high-profile case in a race against time to find this young girl before it’s too late. With the help of Barbo, and US military liaison Holly Boland, they might just have some chance of success.

Jonathan Holt’s first novel, The Abomination, was one of my favourites of last year. With The Abduction he returns to the characters and locales (both physical and virtual) that made the first novel such a compelling read. This time around there is a sense of opportune timing, with the recent release of the so-called “torture memos”, since earlier leaked versions of these documents form the core message of Holt’s narrative: Mia’s captors use the memos to direct the course of treatment for the young girl, with each Torture/Not Torture session broadcast over Carnivia.com for the world to assess and decide.

Holt has his finger very much on the pulse, and uses an excellent device to appeal to the modern reader, who is also, most likely, a voracious consumer of social media; the abductors invite the public to take to the Internet and decide for themselves whether what they are watching (described by the US government as “not torture”) is #Torture or #NotTorture. Holt uses this device to examine the current state of what we think of as “news”, examining the traditional outlets (TV and newspapers) and also the impact of newer, less-regulated channels, such as political bloggers.

Alongside this fast-paced countdown, there is another mystery, which is what initially draws Aldo Piola to the Dal Molin construction site: a skeleton is discovered in one of the construction vehicles during a break-in by the same group that have purportedly abducted Mia. This skeleton is over seventy years old, and Piola finds himself unravelling a conspiracy that came to life towards the end of the Second World War, and which involves the police, the Church (including one of their highest-placed clerics), the CIA and the Christian Democrats, who governed Italy for over forty years. The two mysteries dovetail neatly as the book draws towards its climax, leaving the reader more than satisfied on both counts.

At the centre of this clever novel are the four characters we first met in The Abomination. In the time since the end of that previous novel, much has changed: Aldo Piola is under investigation by Internal Affairs over the sexual harassment claim filed by Kat Tapo; Kat and Holly’s friendship has terminated in a rather abrupt manner that means they haven’t spoken in some time; and Daniele Barbo has retreated back into himself and taken refuge once again in the virtual world he has created. A large part of the attraction of this novel (and its predecessor) is the focus on the relationships between the characters, and the different personalities that Holt has created for them: the outgoing and promiscuous Kat;, neat and ordered Holly; introverted, nerdy Daniele. It’s an interesting dynamic, a group of people that should not work well together, but which has as much drawing power as the book’s central mystery.

Holt also provides us with some insight into the mind of Mia and her abductors, as we watch some of the proceedings through her eyes. The sense of fear is palpable, to the point that we get a vicarious shiver every time there is a hint that something unpleasant is on the way. A rapport develops between Mia and one of her captors, despite the fact that she never sees him without his carnevale mask. This viewpoint also allows the author to examine the torture memos in more detail, and provide some context for their inclusion in the story.

The Abduction, like The Abomination before it, examines, in some depth, the Italian political, legal and justice systems, their respective problems, and their inextricable links not only with organised crime in the country, but also with the Catholic Church, which – to Holt’s mind, at least – rules supreme from the extraterritorial Vatican City at the heart of the country’s capital city. It’s an interesting slant on the old-fashioned police procedural, and a unique problem for crime fiction set in Italy.

Very much in the realms of Neal Stephenson, William Gibson and their ilk, The Abduction is a mix of technological, historical and espionage thriller with a healthy dose of police procedural for good measure. Building on the world he has already created in last year’s The Abomination, Holt develops his characters, their background, and the shady Internet site that sits at the centre of the story, even further in this second outing. It’s a fast-paced and engaging read that works as a complete unit, while also providing deeper insight into the world of Venice and of Carnivia, laying further groundwork for next year’s third, much-anticipated (by me, at the very least) volume, The Absolution.

COMPETITION: Charles Cummings’ A COLDER WAR #MoleHunt

blog tour banner final-page-001

A COLDER WAR

Charles Cummings (www.charlescumming.co.uk)

HarperCollins (www.harpercollins.co.uk)

£12.99

Those fine folks over at HarperCollins’ Killer Reads are running a mole hunt this week to celebrate the publication of Charles Cummings’ latest novel, A Colder War. To be in with a chance of winning a Kindle, all you have to do is visit each of the five blogs in the banner to the left over the course of this week.

Each blog will have two videos, and two associated questions. Take the first letter from the answer to each of those questions to find the identity of the mole. All you have to do to be in with a chance of winning is email Killer Reads with the name of the mole before midnight on Friday 9th May. Full terms and conditions can be found here.

So, without further ado, on to today’s videos and questions.

 

Question 1: What is the name of the journalist working for The Guardian who broke the National Security Agency revelations from Edward Snowden?

Question 2: The Spanish Game by Charles Cumming featured which (now defunct) Basque separatist organisation?

THE VIOLENT CENTURY by Lavie Tidhar

THE VIOLENT CENTURY - Lavie Tidhar THE VIOLENT CENTURY

Lavie Tidhar (lavietidhar.wordpress.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£18.99

Released: 24 October 2013

In the summer of 1932, German scientist Dr Joachim Vomacht powers up a device that will change the world; the wave generated by this device will touch every person on the planet. Not everyone will come through the experience unchanged. Fogg and Oblivion are two such individuals, young British men who discover unusual talents in the wake of the Vomacht wave. Recruited by the Old Man, they join the ranks of the Bureau for Superannuated Affairs – the Retirement Bureau – and find themselves at the centre of some of the Twentieth Century’s most important events. Recalled to the Bureau today, Fogg – much older, but relatively un-aged – must give account of his actions in Berlin immediately following the Second World War, because those actions have repercussions for all of the "changed", even now, almost seventy years later.

Lavie Tidhar’s latest novel, The Violent Century, takes us to a world where superheroes are real. And yet, even with these Beyond-Men, Übermenschen, heroes, the history of the world remains relatively unchanged compared to our own. World War 2 proceeds as expected, the same atrocities carried out in the name of racial cleansing; as does the war in Vietnam and the much less-publicised war in Laos. It is, as the Old Man points out early in the novel, as if the Beyond-Men have cancelled each other out; if only one side or the other had them, things might have turned out much differently. In some ways this observation, and the manner in which these heroes seem completely ineffective, reduces them to the mundane, despite the power any one of them might have to affect the course of history.

The story centres around Fogg and Oblivion, two friends – and, it is hinted, perhaps more even than that – who work for the superhero equivalent of British Intelligence, a shadowy organisation that spends much of its time observing, rather than doing. Tidhar sets up a wonderful contrast between the British powers, and those of other countries: the brash, costumed heroes of the United States; the Communist ideals that drive Russia’s Red Sickle; and the Aryan perfection of the white-suited Nazi representatives. In a series of flashbacks – Fogg’s account as he sits in front of the Old Man’s desk in the Bureau for Superannuated Affairs, "tonight” – we catch glimpses of the century that has gone before: the moment of change in 1932; the recruitment process, and the initial training of Fogg and his fellow "changed" men and women; observing the war in Minsk, and in Paris, and elsewhere; and everything that comes after.

Jumping from time period to time period, recollections within recollections, Tidhar pieces together the history of these two men, and builds towards the final reveal, which will ultimately explain the relative coldness that exists between them in the here and now. In a world where superheroes are real, there is no need for the fictional kind and, as a result, some of the world’s greatest comics creators – Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – put in cameo appearances as historians, experts in the field. Interestingly enough, it is these characters who have the best lines, and who shine the most light on the questions that the novel repeatedly asks: What makes a man? What makes a hero? "”With great power comes great responsibility,” Lee tells us, echoing one of the best-known morals of any superhero tale, as he speaks at the trial in Jerusalem of Vomacht.

– But what’s a hero? the counsellor says, again.

– It seems to me, Shuster says, it seems to me…you must understand, I think, yes, you need to first understand what it means to be a Jew.

– I think I have some experience in that, the counsellor for the defence says drily – which draws a few laughs from the audience. On the stand, Shuster coughs. His eyes, myopic behind the glasses, assume a dreamy look. Those of us who came out of that war, he says. And before that. From pogroms to persecution and to the New World. To a different kind of persecution, perhaps. But also hope. Our dreams of heroes come from that, I think. Our American heroes are the wish-fulfilment of the immigrants, dazzled by the brashness and the colour of this new world, by its sheer size. We needed larger-than-life heroes, masked heroes to show us that they were the fantasy within each and every one of us.

It’s as close as the novel comes to answering the questions, and we, the reader, are left to decide for ourselves who are the heroes, who the villains. The central characters of this tale are supported by a cast of faces both familiar and new: here is Alan Turing, attached to the training camp for these super-humans rather than Bletchley Park; here, the attendees at the Potsdam conference; a descendant of Vlad the Impaler (or, perhaps, the beast himself); Josef Mengele; Osama bin Laden. The Violent Century is a well-researched and lovingly constructed piece of fiction that, despite its science fiction elements, still manages to remain well within the bounds of realism.

Lavie Tidhar is rapidly becoming one of the most important writers of speculative fiction today. The Violent Century is the work of a writer with talent and confidence to burn. Unlike anything else you’ve ever read, its combination of spy thriller and superhero adventure make for an unusual, but inspired, combination. It’s a wonderful, engaging and thought-provoking novel, written with a style as original as the story itself, and presented by Hodder in a beautiful package that will be hard to resist, even for the most casual collector. Quite simply: perfect!

PLAN D by Simon Urban

PLAN D - Simon Urban PLAN D

Simon Urban (www.simonurban.de/)

Translated by Katy Derbyshire

Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk/about-us/harvill-secker/)

£14.99

October, 2011. Much of the gas used by Western Europe comes from Russia, via a pipeline network that runs through the middle of the German Democratic Republic. Weeks before the leaders of the two Germanys are due to come together to discuss the future of the pipeline – cheaper gas for the West, more money for East Germany – an elderly man is found hanged from the pipeline, the arrangement of the body suggesting that the Stasi are up to their old tricks again. Martin Wegener, Hauptmann of the People’s Police, is assigned to the case, a case he expects to hand over the the Stasi themselves before the first day is through. But the case has a bearing on the future of the talks; the West insist on assigning one of their own men and he, in turn, insists that Wegener remain on board. As they dig, the dead man reveals one secret after another. The architect of the so-called Plan D, his death has massive implications for the future of the state. All Wegener has to do is stay alive – and stay out of the Stasi’s secret prisons – until he and Brendel can solve the case.

Simon Urban presents us with a vision of a modern-day Europe still divided by the Berlin Wall. While we spend the entirety of the novel tailing Hauptmann Wegener in his investigation, Urban does provide us with glimpses of what is happening beyond the Wall, mainly through the eyes of Wegener’s Western counterpart, Richard Brendel. It’s a fascinating vision, and provides as much entertainment – and, strangely, as much of the reason for wanting to continue reading – as the murder around which the plot revolves. Urban’s world is wonderfully constructed, and we see the fruits of an extra 25 years of Socialist rule on the people of the GDR, a country that has evolved, technologically, as much as its Western peers, albeit in a slightly different way. Here are a swathe of brand names we don’t know, technologies that are unheard of, yet are plausible at the same time: the Minsk mobile phones, which have models specifically for State Security operatives; the Phobos plastic cars, fuelled by rapeseed oil and smelling like chip pans as a result; the Navodobro, in-car guidance systems that run off a proprietary technology that doesn’t require access to the West’s Global Positioning Satellite network. This is a world where Socialist values still very much hold sway and "low cost" is always the name of the game. Foul-smelling air and greasy car windscreens are a small price to pay for these ideals.

At the centre of the story stands Wegener himself. A People’s Policeman, Wegener has a troubled past that has seen him crossing swords with the Stasi, the dreaded State Security, an organisation that is still very much alive, though much smaller than before, and with a much reduced remit compared to the organisation of terror that existed prior to 1989 (a period referred to in the book as the Revitalisation, during which the Wall was opened for a brief period). At least, that’s the official version. Wegener’s friend and mentor, Josef Früchtl, disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and Wegener found himself in trouble when he asked too many questions. Wegener has the added complication of his ex-girlfriend, Karolina Enders, a woman with whom he is still very much in love and who may have a direct connection to the case at hand, since she works for the Ministry for Energy Export. Paranoid and often deluded – much of the book finds us inside Wegener’s head, witnessing a seemingly endless dialogue with a version of Früchtl that lives on in his mind – Wegener has a sharp mind and a sharper tongue that makes him an intriguing and immensely engaging protagonist. The cast of supporting characters are equally as interesting, as is the history of this repressed country and the various organisations that Wegener encounters along the way.

Plan D is a surprising book – it’s not as heavy as the jacket material makes it seem. There are beautiful touches, and little glimpses of a dark and wonderful humour in the storytelling that transform police procedural-meets-political intrigue into something completely different, and altogether more pleasing. There are obvious comparisons to be made with the like of Robert Harris’ Fatherland and, while the era is completely different, and the points of divergence of the two alternate histories decades apart, Xavier March and Martin Wegener are most definitely two of a kind. It’s a wonderfully written, and obviously lovingly translated, novel that will have the reader, by turns, nailed to the edge of their seat and laughing at some minor incongruity or well-placed joke – often made at Wegener’s expense.

There’s no need for anyone to betray you, Martin, you do that yourself, you insane, horny, dumb idiot of a stallion, you’re the one whose professional interest is on truth, you’re the one chasing after it like a tribe of cannibals after Schalck-Golodkowski, you know the truth finds it own path, it can’t be stopped, it creeps into the light of day at some point, through the tiniest fracture, for the truth, my friend, is a brutal, five-second sauerkraut fart in a teeny windowless cellar room, one second before the masterclass of the Académie du Sommelier comes in.

Simon Urban has created a believable world, a country living with ideals that are almost twenty-five years past their sell-by date, yet surviving nonetheless through sheer luck and the power of the secret police that lurk around every corner. It’s a realistic vision of what Berlin might have been like had the Wall still split the city in two. The inhabitants of this gloomy, greasy city with its pervasive smell of frying oil run the gamut from those happy with their lot, to those – like Wegener himself – who would bolt to the West given half a chance. It’s a gripping read, at times funny, at others quite sad, leaving the reader fearing for the future, not to mention the sanity, of the novel’s protagonist. Despite a distinctly noir feel, Plan D heralds a fresh new look at the European crime novel and plants Simon Urban firmly on the must-read list. This is my surprise hit of the year so far, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

THE JACKAL’S SHARE by Chris Morgan Jones

THE JACKALS SHARE - Chris Morgan Jones THE JACKAL’S SHARE

Chris Morgan Jones (www.chrismorganjones.com)

Mantle (www.panmacmillan.com)

£16.99

Iranian billionaire Darius Qazai is heading for retirement. When an attempt to sell portions of his business result in a report linking him with art smuggling, he hires Ikertu Consulting to dig into his past and prove that he has nothing to hide. Assigned to the case, Ben Webster takes an instant dislike to the man. As he digs into the life of Qazai, and the lives and deaths of the people closest to him, he discovers that Qazai does indeed have something to hide. With a mounting body count, and the resurfacing of an old scandal, it isn’t long before Webster finds his own life – and the lives of his family – in danger.

The Jackal’s Share sees the welcome return of Ben Webster, the protagonist of Chris Morgan Jones’ first novel, An Agent of Deceit. Still trying to come to terms with the outcome of that earlier case, Webster finds himself once more plunged into the dark political underworld of global enterprise where money, it seems, always has more value than human life. Unlike Agent, where the narrative was split almost equally between Webster and his opposite number on the Russian side of the fence, Jackal brings the former journalist more centre stage, telling the story exclusively from his point of view.

While the move from a Russian enemy to a Middle Eastern one – much of the threat comes from parties based in Iran – introduces a more immediate sense of threat for the reader, Jones still manages to maintain an old-fashioned feel throughout the novel, the same Cold War-era feel that made Agent work so well. Webster is a man who earns his living through wits and experience, with nary a ballistic pen nor pocket respirator in sight, the ubiquitous mobile phone the only electronic tool of his trade. As with Webster’s first outing, it makes a somewhat refreshing change.

Moving centre stage brings with it added danger for our favourite corporate spy. Dealing with an Iranian client, Webster quickly discovers that he is well outside his comfort zone; the assumptions he can easily make about the type of Russian with whom he usually deals are invalid and often dangerous here. The people with whom he is dealing have a seemingly endless reach, and Webster’s freedom is threatened quite early in the process. Things take a sinister turn when his wife and children are also threatened and there appears to be no easy means of escape. Jones takes this opportunity to put poor Webster through the wringer, leaving the central character physically and emotionally battered by the novel’s end, paving the path for a much different man, should we see him again in the future.

As with the first novel, Jones takes us on a tour of exotic locations – this time Cornwall, Dubai, Lake Como and Marrakech (another staple of the old-fashioned spy novels, if I remember correctly) feature heavily, and come alive at the hands of this skilled storyteller. He also spends some time fleshing out the people of his fictional world, giving us further background on returning characters – Webster’s wife Elsa and his boss, Ike Hammer, for example – and introducing us to new characters, both specific to Jackal – Darius Qazai and the creepy Yves Senechal – and ones we’re likely to see again as the world-building continues and Jones’ back catalogue grows – Fletcher Constance and Dean Oliver two characters that will hopefully show their faces again.

Jones has once again constructed a complex and involved plot that still manages to make sense at the final reckoning. Webster may be out of his depth with the shift to Middle Eastern and African politics, but it’s clear that this is far from the case for the novel’s author. As he has proven before, he has an innate ability to ration out only the information that the reader needs at any given point in time, so that there is always a surprise around the corner. It’s helped along by the fact that the reader only ever knows what Webster does, and in this way we’re often as surprised as he is when the plot takes a turn for the sinister, though, thankfully, much less bruised and battered for the experience. What results is a satisfying follow-up to An Agent of Deceit, a novel that builds on an already-strong central character, leaving the reader with a hunger for more while leaving the character’s immediate future completely in the dark; as with its predecessor, there are no happy endings here, and we can be safe in the knowledge that the events of A Jackal’s Share will shape Ben Webster – for better or worse – for future adventures.

Readers of Chris Morgan Jones’ debut novel will have been waiting for his follow-up with some measure of excitement for the past year. A Jackal’s Share fails to disappoint, living up to the exacting standard set by that first Ben Webster adventure. Building on the characters already established, Jones takes the focus from Russia – though there are hints that there might be Russian involvement in the low-level details of this second novel – and turns the spotlight on a region that is equally as alien to many Westerners, and as frightening to the current generation as the looming threat of Russia was to an earlier one. What doesn’t get lost is that Cold War-era feel that his first novel had, that sense that we might be reading the latest Le Carré or Deighton, rather than a contemporary piece of spy fiction. It’s not a bad jumping-on point for new recruits; while it does refer to the events of Agent, the two stories are completely standalone, and can be enjoyed as such. Jones has already mentioned that his third novel will shift the focus to a different character within his world, but it’s likely that we’ll see Ben Webster again (he says, hopefully). Proving that he is far from one-hit wonder, Jones’ second novel cements his position as one of the best spy novelists at work today.

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