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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews


Chris Morgan Jones

THE SEARCHER by Chris Morgan Jones


Chris Morgan Jones (

Mantle (


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.

THE JACKAL’S SHARE by Chris Morgan Jones


Chris Morgan Jones (

Mantle (


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.

An Interview with CHRIS MORGAN JONES

Morgan Jones, Chris credit Alexander James
Photograph © Alexander James

Author of: AN AGENT OF DECEIT (2011)

On the web:

On Twitter: @chrismjauthor

Chris Morgan Jones’ first novel, An Agent of Deceit, was published in 2011 to widespread critical acclaim, with many outlets comparing his work to that of John Le Carré. Before setting pen to paper, Jones spent eleven years in the shoes of his protagonist, Ben Webster, working for one of the world’s largest business intelligence agencies.

Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, Chris. For me, An Agent of Deceit, comes across as an old-fashioned spy novel, of the type you don’t really see any more, in a very modern setting. But it still has a very “Cold War”, east versus west, feel to it. Can you talk us through where the idea came from, and how you set about constructing the complex plot?

The very first idea I had, revolving in my head in a quiet way for years, was the predicament of one of the main characters, Richard Lock, who has almost inadvertently signed away his identity, and in the process his life, to hide the criminal gains of a sinister Russian bureaucrat. In my old work I used to come across Locks almost every day – lawyers and accountants whose job it was to set up complex networks of companies offshore. Some of them, like Lock, sell themselves completely and pretend to own things on behalf of others nastier and more powerful than them. I began to wonder who these people were and how they had become what they had become, and slowly one particular such person began to form in my head.

As for the plot: I knew where it began and roughly where it ended, and so the work came in filling out the middle. First I thought through the central story, the relationship between Lock and the investigator who pursues him, and then I introduced the other characters, imagining how they would affect and be affected by events. At one stage I drew up a large chart with the characters across the top and time running down the side and worked out how everyone would interlock. Strangely, it was much easier to plot than my second book, even though in many ways it was more complicated.

That old-fashioned sense is helped along by the fact that Ben Webster, the novel’s protagonist, makes his way through the story – for the most part – without the aid of gadgets, gizmos or even modern technology. With the exception of the frequent mention of mobile phones, this is a story that could have happened prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Was this a conscious decision you made at the outset and, if so, why?

No, strangely. It developed like that. I knew that London and Moscow, the home cities of the two protagonists, would be the two poles of the book, and toyed with various ideas for the location of the book’s final third. Then it became clear that it had to be Berlin – partly because it made sense in plot terms, but also because Berlin is neither east nor west, and was therefore the perfect place for Lock’s dual allegiances to be tested. So I became aware of the old-fashionedness late on.

An Agent of Deceit takes a slightly unusual approach to the spy novel in that it devotes equal airtime to the points of view of both hunter (Webster) and hunted (Richard Lock). Did you find one character more difficult to write than the other, and how much of each character were you able to build from your own experience in the business intelligence community?

Webster was more difficult to write. As you suggest, the book is written from the two protagonists’ perspectives, which alternate throughout. It turned out that this was an excellent structure for a first book, because it established a steady rhythm, but its one flaw, I now realise, was that because Webster is so busy hunting, and making the action of the book happen, we get to know him less well. We get to observe Lock in a more natural state, in a way, and I think he feels more rounded as a result. This is something that with luck the second book addresses.

And while what Webster does is a pretty accurate amalgam of what people in my old world do, the characters themselves aren’t drawn from a single model. They’re both fictional creations, and to be honest neither particularly resembles anyone I know in life.

There have been plenty of comparisons between your work and the novels of John Le Carré, which is presumably not a bad thing for a first-time author to hear. As I read the book, I found myself comparing Webster to that other great fictional spy, Bernie Samson – more everyman than Old Boys’ Network, the obsession and doggedness. Can you talk about the influence these two giants of the genre – Le Carré and Deighton – have had on your own writing?

I’m not sure it’s possible to unpick one’s influences. Le Carré and Deighton are both writers I enjoy enormously, and admire, but I think others might be better placed to spot the correspondences. One very nice reader compared the book to Eric Ambler, which was another tremendous compliment. What they all have in common is the sense of a secret world occupying a dimension right next to but invisible from our own, which is definitely something worth emulating. They’re probably all in there somewhere, along with some writers of detective fiction. Rex Stout, a name not heard often in the UK, definitely had an influence on the structure, even though his books – brilliant comic detective novels – are entirely different.

And before we move on to more general questions…are we likely to see Ben Webster again? Can you talk about what you’re working on at the minute?

I’ve finished a new Webster novel. It’s called The Jackal’s Share and will be published in hardback early next year. As I said, this time we spend more time with him, and his trials are rather different and more acute. The story is entirely new, though – it isn’t strictly a sequel.

For the third book I’m planning to write about the same world, but to shift the focus to a different character within it. And Russia hoves back into view.

What other authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

Rex Stout, as mentioned above. James Lee Burke, a brilliant writer of crime thrillers, for want of a better word (he’s much too good to need a genre tag). Then there are all the writers I’d like to think I might be influenced by in some small way. Robert Louis Stevenson is probably top of that list. Line by line I’m not sure he’s ever been bettered, and his stories and plotting are sublime. There’s a reason that Treasure Island is still such a thrilling book.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

Heavens. Apart from Treasure Island, probably The Count of Monte Cristo, which is probably the most compelling story I’ve ever read. It makes a thousand pages seem like fifty.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Chris Morgan Jones look like?

That’s an excellent question. The ideal writing day involves getting up early, around 5.30, writing for a couple of hours before the children wake up, going back to it from 9 until lunchtime, and then squeezing in another three hours or so from 4 till 7 (in the middle of the day my brain stops). In reality all sorts of things get in the way, and when they don’t, I do.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Carve out some time. This is easier said than done, of course. The luckiest break I got was being able to write the first few chapters of the book while looking for a new job, and without the uninterrupted work that allowed I’m not sure I’d have completed the task.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I’ve been reading an extraordinary book about parallel universes by a brilliant writer on physics called Brian Greene. The book is The Hidden Reality. It sounds ridiculously difficult, and it is – every morning I’ve forgotten what I read the night before. But it’s truly fascinating and has the advantage of having no characters and plots in it, which is sometimes a relief.

Would you like to see An Agent of Deceit make the jump from page to screen? If so, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

I’ve thought about it, but to be honest not to that degree of detail. There’s Tomas Alfredson, who directed the brilliant vampire movie Let The Right One In, but then he went and directed the equally good Tinker Tailor, and he might feel he’s had enough spies.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Now that’s fun. M. R. James, the ghost story writer. We’d have to meet in an empty house somewhere on the Suffolk coast and we’d talk about his most terrifying creations. I would need whisky.

Thank you once again, Chris, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

Chris will be appearing at the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival on Friday 20th July.

AN AGENT OF DECEIT by Chris Morgan Jones

an-agent-of-deceit- AN AGENT OF DECEIT

Chris Morgan Jones (

Pan Books (


There seems to be cyclic nature to the popularity of certain, seemingly long-dead, genres. In recent years we have seen upsurges in the popularity of westerns and pirates, for example, while the most recent rebirth, helped along greatly by Tomas Alfredson’s big screen adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is in the spy fiction genre. Not since before the fall of the Iron Curtain have we had so much choice in this area, and Chris Morgan Jones is one of the new names making waves. An Agent of Deceit is his first novel, and takes the somewhat unusual approach of constructing a spy novel around a spy who works in the business intelligence community, rather than a government-run institution.

Richard Lock has spent almost fifteen years constructing and running a network of companies which form the external face of Russian oligarch Konstantin Malin’s empire. Lock has done his job well – none of the companies can be traced back to their true owner – and has been paid well for his efforts. When a Greek oil tycoon hires Ikertu Consulting to look into the affairs of Malin, investigator Ben Webster finds that the best place to start looking is the network of companies outside of Russia, and that the weakest link in Malin’s chain is Richard Lock. Spurred on by personal reasons, and by the murder of one of Malin’s retired lieutenants, Webster attempts to secure the defection of a man looking for a way out from under one of Russia’s most dangerous men.

An Agent of Deceit has the feel of an old-fashioned spy novel. With the action focussing on London, Moscow and Berlin, it certainly fits the mould of the Cold War-era spy thrillers. Jones takes the novel of approach of alternating chapters between hunter (Webster) and hunted (Lock), giving us both sides of this complex but engaging story. Webster, ex-journalist turned corporate spy, is a strong lead, and comes across as something of an “everyman”, more Bernard Samson than George Smiley. His position as investigator in business intelligence consultancy Ikertu makes more sense in this post-Cold War world than a similar position in MI-6, but the Russian element, and the Berlin setting of much of the action harks back to an older time, a more divided Europe. Lock is a man out of his depth and struggling to find an escape route. As investigators close in, and focus their attention on his businesses, he starts to panic, wondering just how indispensible he is to Malin. He is a surprisingly likeable character, and we find ourselves rooting for him as his world begins to unravel.

The plot is as complex as Lock’s network of companies, but Jones’ fresh approach and somewhat brusque writing style ensure that proceedings are kept moving, and that the reader is never left confused by jargon or details. As the various threads begin to interweave, and the story moves towards its climax, the pace kicks up a notch and the reader is left breathless and wanting more. The climax, when it arrives, is as tense and thrilling as it is unexpected – the pieces of this finely-constructed mystery fall into place, and the bigger picture is revealed to the reader – and the protagonists – for the first time. It’s an accomplished coup de grace, a very pleasant surprise from a freshman writer who seems already to be on top of his craft.

With the exception of mobile phones – which play a large and important part of the plot – Webster manages to proceed with his investigation without the aid of the gadgets and gizmos that the Bond films have led us to expect from spy adventures. It’s a nice touch (although an unplanned one, according to the author) that gives this novel its old-fashioned feel, and provides us with a story that could well have happened prior to the fall of the Berlin wall. It’s perfect, then, for fans of Le Carré and Deighton and brings a fine tradition into the twenty-first century, giving it a new lease of life in the process.

Chris Morgan Jones brings with him a wealth of real-life experience in the field in which he writes, and this shines through in the details. An Agent of Deceit is a wonderful start to his writing career: it’s an old-world spy adventure that is at once intelligent and thrilling. In Ben Webster we find a sympathetic character – a family man, a man of principles – who forms the heart of the narrative and makes us care about what happens next. There is no doubt about it: spies are back, and Chris Morgan Jones is at the forefront of the push, an exciting young writer with fresh new ideas for an old, but extremely popular, genre.

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