Book Review

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State of Terror, by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny

The fact that Mrs Clinton had been assisted by an established thriller writer for this story didn’t surprise me; I already knew of the former from her recently terminated political career, and I thought it might be interesting to discover what sort of a job she could do with a political thriller—politics at a high level being her primary area of expertise—having recently read a ‘what if?’ version of her life, reviewed here, but also without being aware of any of her other fiction writing, such as it might be: she has, according to the book’s flyleaf, written seven other books, including one with her daughter Chelsea, but from the titles, it seems most likely that they are all non-fiction [I could confirm that on t’internet, but, ya know…..], so it is probably a sensible guess that she provided the political ‘dope’, and Penny wrote it up. The latter’s name was vaguely familiar, but I soon realised that I had already read one of her books, albeit eighteen months ago [yay, memory!] and reviewed it here, A Great Reckoning.

It is jumping forward somewhat to reveal this, but I was quite gratified to discover that Penny’s primary protagonist in the aforementioned story also appears here, albeit late in the story and in a minor rôle, but as to what his involvement is, the Book Reviewer’s Code of Ethics absolutely forbids me to reveal it, so I won’t. The real identities of two of the principal characters are, to me anyway, immediately transparent: Secretary of State Ellen Adams is Clinton—having undertaken that function herself, so she should, by all rights, know what she’s talking [sic] about—and former President Eric Dunn [the story being written in 2020] is clearly Donald Trump, whose fictional character features highly in the story, although not as a main ‘player’. Adams’s personality is modelled on a former colleague in Congress, and the former’s best friend & advisor is modelled on her own best friend from school days, so they are well qualified to be realistic; Clinton also, graciously, credits her husband, “a great reader and writer [who knew? Not I] of thrillers, for his constant support and useful suggestions, as always”.

Dunn has been defeated in his reëlection attempt, and “After the past four years of watching the country she loved flail itself almost to death”, a fellow [of Adams] Democrat,  Douglas Williams, has been installed as President; there’s one major problem with that, and her current position in the new administration: “It had come as a huge shock when [Williams] had chosen a political foe, a woman who’d used her vast resources to support his rival for the party nomination … It was an even greater shock when Ellen Adams had turned her media empire over to her grown daughter and accepted the post.” So: she was never going to get an easy ride—self-inflicted? arguably—and her first foray into the literal & metaphorical world of international power-brokering, in South Korea, had been at best a failure, and could easily have been interpreted by those so disposed to do so as a fiasco. Not an auspicious start; so when a bus bomb explodes without any warning during the morning rush-hour in London, Adams suspects that she is going to be tested to the extreme, and that does, indeed, prove to be the case. What follows is a tense whirlwind of globetrotting negotiations, all the while trying to locate a psychopathically murderous arms dealer and prevent him carrying out his heinous threat, when the US government has identified it.

In politics, as in the world of espionage, one of the biggest problems is knowing whom to trust, and in Ellen Adams’s world, the dangers associated with making a mistake are gut-wrenchingly great, especially when highly-placed actors [in the life-rôle sense] remain from the previous administration, and this proves to be very testing & difficult for both Adams and Williams, especially given their previous antipathy, which they have no alternative but to work through, if they are going to thwart the jeopardy. The tension racks up very nicely during the narrative; Adams’s son, his girlfriend, and Adams’s daughter, Katherine, the media mogul, are closely involved, and there is even a literal countdown for a final escalation so, notwithstanding one’s attitude toward America’s militarism & arrogant, Christianity-dominated assumption of global moral advocate status, this is an excellent, albeit simultaneously worrying [if one takes the narrative too literally] thriller for our times. Perhaps it should have ended with the classic [British television, paraphrased] Crimewatch advice: “It’s alright: don’t have nightmares!” The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021, Macmillan] by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-7973-9.

Book Review

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London, Burning by Anthony Quinn

To people of a similar age to me, the name Anthony Quinn will suggest a well-built actor who starred in many acclaimed films [Wiki here], but this is not the same man: unfortunately, the flyleaf of the paperback for which this review is intended had a very unhelpful barcode sticker inconveniently placed over the author’s admittedly minimal biography, but I could ascertain that Quinn was born in Liverpool in 1964, and as well as being an author of seven fiction and one non-fiction books, he has also been a film critic, so quite culturally fluent. This comes across in the story under review, although it doesn’t strive to be highbrow: it reads very easily, and the characters are adequately believable.

The title is a reference to a famous song by The Clash, which suggests the timeframe of the story, which is 1977: the fag end of the Callaghan government which, like several others for various reasons, was a very poor advertisement for democratic socialism, which had been so successfully implemented by Clement Attlee after the ousting of Churchill in the 1945 general election. The trade unions were responding to the government’s austerity policy [sound familiar?] by flexing their considerable muscles; union membership being then much higher than it is today; and bringing the country to its knees, apparently totally oblivious to the hardship that this was causing ordinary people, thereby paving the way for the disastrous régime of Margaret Thatcher, which was then heralded as a return to common sense and that much-vaunted [and misused] concept: freedom.

The IRA was also active on the mainland, and one of this story’s characters, Callum Conlan, is inadvertently caught up in a terrorist incident. During the narrative, he comes into contact with some of the other characters: Freddie Selves, who is a self-absorbed theatre impresario; Vicky Tress, a young policewoman [as they were then called], who is encouraged to move from uniform to CID duties, and is supported by a senior officer, for only partially altruistic reasons; and an ambitious, as well as obviously noticeably intelligent reporter for a left-leaning news magazine, Hannah Strode. In order, Conlan is an academic who moved away from his native Newry to escape “The Troubles”, but unfortunately, they catch up with him in the form of a younger former school acquaintance, whom he meets when he is working on a building site adjoining the place of Selves’s employment, the National Music Hall. Selves is a lothario, and his latest adventure is discovered by Hannah Strode, who sees a scoop in revealing this. Vicky Tress becomes involved in an anti-corruption investigation at work [very common then and, sadly, not entirely eradicated even now], but she suffers a traumatic incident in the line of duty.

Although I enjoyed reading this book, I feel that the narrative slightly fails to deliver the tension promised by its title; having said that, I wouldn’t want that to be a disincentive for potential readers. Also, without wanting to spoil the plot in any way, there do seem to be some loose ends left at the conclusion, so I wonder if a sequel/continuation is on the cards? The acknowledgements at the end don’t support this inference, but it would strike me as odd if characters are introduced to a narrative, but left with unfinished business; or perhaps, this is just my desire for completeness in a narrative: presumably, time will tell. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021, Little, Brown, London] by Abacus, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, London, ISBN 978-0-349-14428-3.

Book Review

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The Bourne Treachery, by Brian Freeman

Strictly speaking, this is Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Treachery, because the original author has to be credited when a character’s arc is continued; this is Freeman’s second novel in this canon, and an author called Eric Van Lustbader has also written twelve [count them!], in addition to the, by comparison somewhat paltry, three originals. They all have a noun associated with the character’s name, so they are surely soon going to run out of credible options? I suppose we could have The Bourne Tea Party, but I digress 😉 This one was published last year, so Covid is known about, but it doesn’t play a significant rôle in the plot. These stories are pulp, to a large extent, and if you’ve seen any of the films [given that this is a very profitable franchise (aka money-making machine)] you know pretty much what to expect, but as long as you can accept some questionable ethics when justice is dispensed, they make reasonably enjoyable, albeit undemanding reading.

If you’re not familiar with the character, Jason Bourne is a skilled assassin who works for a highly secret [aren’t they all?] ’Black Ops’ organisation, called Treadstone, funded by the American government, but ultimately deniable, and it is tasked with keeping “The Free World” [i.e., America] safe, which generally involves killing people indiscriminately, if they are perceived as presenting a credible threat. Incidentally, there has recently been a television series called Treadstone, which purported to present the organisation’s origin, but I found it very confusing, the way it bounced back & forth in time, and it was difficult to keep track of all the characters, of which there were many, so I gave up on it after about half a dozen episodes. At some point in Bourne’s past, he has suffered an injury or a medical procedure which has robbed him of his long-term memory, which is a very useful plot device, because it means that characters from his past can be introduced, and he won’t know them until it’s possibly too late; although we should know by now that Bourne is a character who can’t be written off too quickly.

At the beginning of this story, Bourne is living in Paris, still unclear about much of his past, and his habits are too regular, but it is almost as if he is tempting possible assassins; Treadstone, from which he is estranged, being one of the candidates; to come after him. He does keep in touch with a particular Treadstone agent though, and through Nash Rollins he learns that his particular skill-set is wanted to neutralise a threat to one of the speakers at the forthcoming annual meeting of the World Trade Organisation in London. The threat comes from a highly skilled & dangerous assassin called Lennon, who three years ago was responsible for murdering a turncoat ex-KGB man named Kotov, whom Bourne & his erstwhile partner and lover, Nova, were exfiltrating from Tallinn, except that the ferry he was travelling on was blown up, killing many innocent people in addition to the target. This action is described in a prologue; Lennon also seems to know an uncomfortable amount of personal information about Bourne himself.

Most of the action which follows is set in London [thankfully, not London, England], and there is even a section located in a north-east coast town I know very well: Whitby! There is the obligatory Dracula reference, of course, but it is only really in passing, and it doesn’t have any bearing on the story; being an actor of ‘a certain age’, I can see that I would be just right for one of the minor characters there, were this episode to make it to the big screen [must call my agent………]. Not a classic of English literature, by any standards, but a good & engaging yarn, so if you like this sort of scenario, I would quite happily recommend this entry in the Bourne canon. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by Head of Zeus Ltd., part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, ISBN 978-1-7895-4658-3.

Book Review

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The Crocodile Hunter, by Gerald Seymour

I have capitalised the title, to give it a conventional appearance, contrary to how it is shown on the cover of the book; I know I can sometimes shun convention, but showing the title of a book in all lower case [but not the author’s name] just looks affected to me: sorry. If the author’s name looks familiar, to those of my readers ‘of a certain age’, that is because he was a reporter for the ITN [International Television News] company in Britain for fifteen years, covering America’s war in Viet Nam, and the Middle East; he has been a full-time writer since 1978, and is probably best known for Harry’s Game, which was successfully dramatised for television, based on his experience in Northern Ireland, including witnessing Bloody Sunday. This is his thirty-seventh novel. I have read the aforementioned Harry’s Game, a few years ago now, so I can’t remember if the writing style of the illustrious precursor was the same as that utilised in this narrative, where the mostly third-person description of the action is somewhat clipped, by the intermittent omission of articles, definite & indefinite [the, a, an], and personal pronouns, to indicate a thought process, often rushed: this can be effective, but I have to confess that it felt slightly overused in this narrative, which does become tiresome after a while.

This concern aside, the story and its dénouement are well played out. This book is evidently one of a series; a new story, The Foot Soldiers [again correctively capitalised]  is due out next month, March 2022; but it is impossible to discern, from the publications list at the front of the book, how many previous Jonas Merrick novels there have been. That notwithstanding, the character is sightly unusual in being initially at the end of his security service career; he is a ‘Fiver’, but he does bear some characteristic similarities with an illustrious fictional colleague, albeit across the river from Thames House, George Smiley: the reasons for this similarity are impossible to know, but it is a useful similarity, and far be it from me to speculate that it is any sort of ‘crib’. Merrick’s nickname among his colleagues is The Eternal Flame, because he never goes out [i.e.: leave his office]: he revels in slow, deliberate, painstaking research, seeking out potential threats to the security of Britain and, although in the early stages of his career, field work would have been barred to him, latterly it has been a matter of choice, preferring to confer the privilege of the more prestigious, albeit secret, and for internal acknowledgment only, surveillance & capture of targets on younger & fitter operatives.

However, on the evening of his leaving party, his 60th birthday, which signifies his retirement, he does something uncharacteristic: he has no positive expectations of the event, so he exits the building to give him a breathing space, and after a short walk along the river, completely by chance [and fortuitously for the story] he encounters a potential suicide bomber, whom he recognises from his research; but a very nervous, young, white radicalised British lad by the name of Winston Gunn, the product of a Caucasian, lorry-driver father and a Quetta, Pakistan-born mother. Exercising icy calm, he talks to the lad and, when he has gained Gunn’s trust, he defuses the explosive device. This act of conspicuous bravery, for which he is subsequently [but discreetly] awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal, which his wife Vera keeps at the bottom of her knicker drawer, earns him a reprieve from retirement, towards which he seemed to have no strong feelings either way: he & Vera enjoy their touring caravan holidays [and Jonas is blithely unconcerned about the traffic tailbacks this activity inevitably generates], but he also enjoys his work, which he considers to be ever more necessary, regrettably. His continuation of employment brings with it a new respect & concomitant status: the AssDepDG [Assistant Deputy Director General of the Service] now reads every memo from Jonas, instead of routinely giving them barely more than a cursory glance; and he has acquired a new sobriquet, ‘Wobby’, meaning the AssDepDG’s ‘Wise Old Bird’.

The eponymous crocodile is a new target: a potentially very dangerous individual; a returning jihadi, but a white British one, who could very easily go to ground on his return, and metaphorically lurk below the surface while preparing to strike at a significant target. Jonas reduces the candidate list of known possibilities to the one who seems most likely, in very short order, and begins his methodical research, whilst at the same time being painfully aware that rumours of a lethally destructive weapon being brought over land to Britain could signify an imminent & devastating revenge attack by this individual. Unfortunately, resources are stretched, because of a multiplicity of domestic operations, so Jonas is assigned two new and rather raw recruits for his field work. Jonas realises that his dispassionate expertise is needed out in the field, so he travels to Canterbury, just outside which the target originates from, and meets the two local tactical weapons officers who have been somewhat grudgingly told to assist him on the ground, but who initially regard him from appearances & personality as ineffectual. Interspersed within this narrative is an exposition of the back story of the target; his family background, his disenchantment with conventional British society, and his enjoyment of military action with trusted ‘brothers’ in Syria, fighting under the black flag.

The dénouement is satisfying, which is a great relief to Jonas, because his reputation, and that of ‘Five’, are very much on the line here; as the IRA famously said: “We only need to be lucky once.” Given the protagonist’s age, his future career must be somewhat limited, but nevertheless, it should be possible to conceive of a few new stories on this canon, so I will keep my eyes open for them; or any previous ones, come to that. The paperback I read was published in 2021 by Hodder & Stoughton, ISBN 978-1-529-38604-2.