#BlogTour Kjell Ola Dahl- The Courier

In 1942, Jewish courier Ester is betrayed, narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo. In a great haste, she escapes to Sweden, saving herself. Her family in Oslo, however, is deported to Auschwitz. In Stockholm, Ester meets the resistance hero, Gerhard Falkum, who has left his little daughter and fled both the Germans and allegations that he murdered his wife, Åse, who helped Ester get to Sweden. Their burgeoning relationship ends abruptly when Falkum dies in a fire. And yet, twenty-five years later, Falkum shows up in Oslo. He wants to reconnect with his daughter. But where has he been, and what is the real reason for his return? Ester stumbles across information that forces her to look closely at her past, and to revisit her war-time training to stay alive…

Once again the spectre of WWII, familiar in Scandinavian fiction, looms large in this latest thriller from the always compelling Kjell Ola Dahl. With it’s triple timeline narrative, and an overriding air of conspiracy, lies and betrayal, this is certainly on a par with some of the finest proponents of the espionage genre.

I think the stand out feature for me of this particular book, was the real resonance it had of one of my favourite fiction writers, William Boyd, and this is high praise indeed. In much the same way as Boyd has defined his place in the spy genre with his particular attention to and always authentic female protagonists, so Dahl achieves the same thing with Ester. I found her character absolutely mesmerising throughout as she seeks to unravel the crimes of the past, as the story unfolds through 1940s Norway, to 1960s Sweden and then to the contemporary period. I loved that Dahl imbued her character with an equal share of vulnerability, stubborn minded and tenacious invincibility, truly making her character for the reader to become invested in. From the traumatic loss of her family in Auschwitz, to the murder of her closest friend, and then her conflicting hard headedness and attraction to the man she believed responsible of this crime, Dahl puts her through an emotional wringer, which instead of breaking her, just makes her grow in stature among her peers, and allows her to navigate the disturbing vibrations of the past in the present. I must confess, that such was my interest in her character, the male protagonists of the book became shadowy conduits for Ester’s self realisation, but without their attempted manipulations, and seeming duplicity in relation to her, this made for an interesting journey as she navigates her way to the truth.

What I also admired greatly was the way that Dahl so fixedly entrenches us  in each contrasting time period, as the book does alternate quickly at times between the two. This real sense of time and place keeps us rooted in Ester’s story across the years, and adds contrasting feelings of tension in each era. Obviously, in the Nazi occupied Norway of 1940s and the severe escalation of the Final Solution, the feeling of fear and threat of violence is palpable in these sections of the book. This is further heightened by the illicit activities that Ester herself is involved in. However, Dahl manages to manipulate our sense of tension, which is no less discomfiting, in the 1960s narrative too, as Ester tries to unravel the enigma that is Falkum. This ebb and flow of their interactions, and the veil of secrecy that Dahl manages to cast over events up until the latter stages of the book is effectively done, all leading to an emotional and devastatingly poignant denouement.

In much the same way as Arnaldur Indridason has recently explored the Icelandic experience of WWII, adjusting the focus away from the linear murder mystery form to something far more searching and emotionally driven, so Dahl achieves the same in this intelligent and absorbing standalone. As a fan of Dahl’s regular crime series, I was more than satisfied with this perceptive, and at times, incredibly moving exploration of Scandinavian history. It pirouettes so neatly between changing times, cultural norms (through Dahl’s precise insertion of music and film references) and the growing self awareness and belief of a truly memorable female protagonist. Highly recommended.  

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

 

 

 

Fergus McNeill- Ashes of America

It’s 1953, and an optimistic America is shaking off the hurt of World War II. Russia is defeated and Germany is now an ally. Former soldier Frank Rye is a small-town cop in rural Missouri, but the war has left him cynical and selfish. When his actions lead to the murder of a fellow officer, guilt drives him into a vengeful hunt for justice. His search for the killer will drag him deep into his own past, to the wartime summer of 1944, when he was stationed in neutral Switzerland, to a clandestine world of love and lies. To unmask the killer, he must uncover the truth about the war and about himself…

It’s been a long wait for a new book from Fergus McNeill, but all good things come to those who wait, some of us less patiently than others, and Ashes of America is a more than welcome return from this always excellent author…

From the outset this book ticked a huge amount of boxes for me, with a split narrative set in post war 1950s Missouri, and also 1940s war-time Switzerland. McNeill captures effortlessly, the zeitgeist of the post war era in America, and immerses us in a period where everyone was touched in such measure by the seismic events of this conflict. None more so than his main character Frank Rye, a cop in Missouri, whose back story surrounding his wartime service brings a real vigour and excitement to what could easily just be a linear tale of betrayal and murder. With the brutal killing of a fellow cop in a real wrong time, wrong place scenario, Rye quickly realises that someone is baying for his blood, and finding himself suspended, he sets out on a maverick mission to catch the killer. All well and good, but here’s the thing that McNeill does so well. By pivoting us back to Rye’s clandestine activities in Switzerland during his army service, McNeill has achieved the not so achievable feat of presenting us with two seemingly unrelated narratives that mirror the energy and suspense of each other.

As a fan of spy thrillers, and crime fiction, this provided a hugely enjoyable reading experience. The 1940s Switzerland based story is a perfect example of a well executed spy story, which thanks to McNeill’s excellent rendition of atmosphere and location, sees us following Rye through the twisted streets and dark corners of this beautiful Swiss setting, chasing shadowy figures, relying on his smarts, and trying to avoid physical harm. When I was reading this, I was instantly reminded of the black and white hues of Carol Reed’s The Third Man as Rye seeks to make sense of the strange situation he finds himself in, and the array of secretive characters he becomes inextricably entangled with in this wartime subterfuge. McNeill employs a real smoke and mirrors feel to this storyline, keeping us and Rye himself in a shroud of uncertainty as to why he is there, and who exactly can be trusted as everyone seems duplicitous to one degree or another. It is a beautifully crafted espionage tale, punctuated by newspaper excerpts, keeping us firmly rooted in this idyllic setting with its own claustrophobic intensity whilst reminding us of the war raging on elsewhere.

In 1950s Missouri, as Rye pursues a murderer and his female accomplice from his backwoods station to Kansas City, there is all the tension and suspense of a crime thriller, where in all the best tales, Rye turns maverick cop, but in true Jack Reacher fashion, reveals a few more sensitive facets to his character, that the opening of the book has firmly disabused us of. With a steely determination and a ready fist, Rye succeeds in antagonising most of those he encounters in his path, which leads to an exciting and tense counter-narrative, which then whips you back to the alpine subterfuge, and the slightly different pace, intensity but no less exciting storyline. When encountering a character like Rye, tough, dogged and cynical in outlook, I almost always take to them, and I quickly thought that there would be a real mileage to this character in further books, dependent on whether he reached the end of the book in one piece. Well, you’ll have to find that out for yourselves, and I would urge you to find this out for yourselves. Really enjoyed this one, and good to see the return of Fergus McNeill.

Highly recommended.

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With thanks to the author for the ARC

Buy Ashes of America:  Amazon UK & Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#BlogTour- Dov Alfon- A Long Night In Paris

When an Israeli tech entrepreneur disappears from Charles de Gaulle airport with a woman in red, logic dictates youthful indiscretion. But Israel is on a state of high alert nonetheless. Colonel Zeev Abadi, the new head of Unit 8200’s autonomous Special Section, who just happens to be in Paris, also just happens to have arrived on the same flight. For Commissaire Léger of the Paris Police coincidences have their reasons, and most are suspect. When a second young Israeli is kidnapped soon after arriving on the same flight, this time at gunpoint from his hotel room, his suspicions are confirmed – and a diplomatic incident looms.

Back in Tel Aviv, Lieutenant Oriana Talmor, Abadi’s deputy, is his only ally, applying her sharp wits to the race to identify the victims and the reasons behind their abduction. In Paris a covert Chinese commando team listens to the investigation unfurl and watches from the rooftops. While by the hour the morgue receives more bodies from the river and the city’s arrondissements.

The clock has been set. And this could be a long night in the City of Lights.

Right, confession time. Having read and struggled to review John Le Carre’s convoluted and uber-ponderous The Little Drummer Girl (and then been bored witless by the equally uber-ponderous TV adaptation) last year, I was understandably nervous about a thriller that, on the face of it, may tread slightly similar ground. Thankfully my fears were quickly dispelled- hallelujah, I hear you cry- and this turned out to be a really rather clever, and absorbing thriller indeed, with an undeniable literary quality in its writing and execution…

Opening with the baffling kidnap of a, it has to be said, quite annoying Israeli tourist from Charles de Gaulles airport in Paris, Dov Alfon constructs a intense and absorbing thriller which brings to the fore the global problem of not only the secrecy and power games within national security agencies, but their inexplicable need to withhold and conceal information from each other. Few are better placed than Alfon, as a former Israeli Intelligence officer himself, to expose to some degree the daily frustrations and power struggles that lay behind these most secret of organisations, and through the power of fiction serve it up to us in its startling reality. I think this was the single most notable factor of this book for me, that all this, for want of a better word, childish squabbling, and some pretty damn deep-seated corruption (that could not all be entirely fictional) frustrates and confuses the investigation, and those charged to carry it out. It was fascinating to bear witness to this and with Alfon’s personal experiences undoubtedly woven into the story, it added an extra level of enjoyment to the book itself. Admittedly at first it was a little confusing to grasp which particular branch of security was which, but as the main players began to be more fully fleshed out, it was easier to decipher who was working with who, and against who for whatever nefarious reason.

I thought the characterisation was superb from the beleaguered and world weary Commissaire Leger in Paris, finding himself involved in a difficult position liaising with the secretive and highly intuitive Colonel Zeev Abadi of the Israeli Intelligence Unit 8200. Abadi is a flawed but incredibly interesting character, whose unique style of investigation and distillation of information received, frustrates not only Leger but others within the disparate branches of Israeli Intelligence. Taken in tandem with the experiences of Abadi’s deputy, the feisty, and at times, wonderfully insubordinate Lieutenant Oriana Talmor, Alfon has succeeded in not only crafting a gripping thriller, but populating this with a cast of entirely credible and absorbing characters. As all their inherent frustrations come to the surface during the course of the investigation, and the external forces that seek to thwart them tighten their grip, Alfon puts his characters under pressure to an alarming degree, but not without its entertainment for the reader. Abadi is a mesmeric character in the way that brooding, loner men always are, and thankfully Talmor has more than enough grit about her to hold her own in the misogynistic institutions that try to suppress her more instinctive methods, and use her steely determination to overcome her recent professional disappointments.

Despite my slightly disparaging comments on Le Carre’s book at the beginning I am a lover of his work, and in terms of the plot construction, Alfon weaves a similar spell, in this dark tale of subterfuge and diplomatic difficulties. Focussing not only on the world of espionage, Alfon also incorporates Israeli- Palestinian relations, embezzlement, a Chinese hit squad and more, using the backdrop of Paris both in its grandeur and grinding poverty to great effect. This is an intelligent but not too complex thriller, less high octane and more measured than some, but nonetheless a fascinating and highly enjoyable read, which kept me hooked. Recommended.

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Buy a copy of A Long Night In Paris here  and catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

 

(With thanks to Maclehose Press for the ARC)

 

Blog Tour- John Le Carre- The Little Drummer Girl

Charlie in an unhappy English actress in her twenties, longing for commitment: but to what and to whom? While holidaying on the Greek island of Mykonos, she is seduced by a handsome and mysterious embattled Israeli intelligence officer, on a mission to stop the bombing of Jews in Europe. Forced to play her most challenging role, Charlie is plunged into an elaborate plot set to entrap the elusive Palestinian terrorist behind the attacks, and soon proves herself to be a double agent of the highest order…

And so to the last stop on the John Le Carre blog tour, and with the upcoming six part BBC screen adaptation, what better book to conclude this celebratory tour with than The Little Drummer Girl . The release of the book into a Penguin Modern Classic marks the completion of a nine-year project by Penguin to publish twenty-one of Le Carre’s novels, thus making him the most published author in this iconic series, acknowledging him as a writer not only for today, but for all time. As Helen Conford, Publisher Director at Penguin Books says, ” John Le Carre is one of the most important writers of our generation. For twenty-one of his novels to be published as Penguin Modern Classics is an acknowledgement not only of his immense literary achievement and the timeless quality of his work, but a well-deserved recognition of his significance as a writer who holds a mirror up to society, and encourages us to question the world around us.” The October transmission of the screen adaptation is brought to us by the award winning producers of The Night Manager, and stars Alexander Skarsgard and Florence Pugh.

The Little Drummer Girl is a page-turning story of love and loyalty set against the backdrop of the Middle East conflict, and I found it significantly different in tone and composition to the George Smiley series, and his other spy novels generally, which I am more familiar with. I think its no exaggeration to say that Charlie goes on an emotionally and physically draining journey during the course of this book, quickly maturing from an outspoken, incredibly dislikeable, and shockingly naïve young woman as she becomes a tool of the sinister Israeli Secret Service in their plot to entrap a Palestinian terrorist- a plot full of bluff and double-bluff The book is incredibly dense and labyrinthian, and attention must be paid, as some characters have different identities, and as a reader you are always second guessing their intentions and motivations in this unceasingly complex plot. With Le Carre’s always impeccable detail to plot structure, characterisation, location, and social and political mores of this particular point in history, the book manages to balance a sense of menace and claustrophobia with a convoluted love story that ties into the themes of loss and betrayal, with an immensely powerful denouement. A complicated. but ultimately satisfying read, that any admirer of John Le Carre will savour…

*****I have a copy of The Little Drummer Girl to giveaway to one lucky entrant in the prize draw. Simply leave your details in the contact form below (your details will not be displayed) by midnight on Friday 12th October to enter. UK only.***** GIVEAWAY NOW CLOSED*** 

Congratulations to the winner Andrea Hedgcock

The Raven will be in contact soon for your mailing address! 

You can buy the complete range of John Le Carre Penguin Modern Classics here 

Catch up with any John Le Carre posts you’ve missed at these excellent sites:

#BlogTour- Matthew Richardson- My Name Is Nobody- Extract

Welcome to the next stop on the blog tour for Matthew Richardson’s debut spy thriller, My Name Is Nobody. I reviewed this book a few weeks ago, and was struck by how it retains all the tension and atmosphere of a very traditional spy thriller, but with a refreshingly contemporary take on spies, lies and espionage. Here is the opening chapter from the book for your delectation and delight, and read my review here .

Solomon Vine was the best of his generation, a spy on a fast track to the top. But when a prisoner is shot in unexplained circumstances on his watch, only suspension and exile beckon.
Three months later, MI6’s Head of Station in Istanbul is abducted from his home. There are signs of a violent struggle. With the Service in lockdown, uncertain of who can be trusted, thoughts turn to the missing man’s oldest friend: Solomon Vine.
Officially suspended, Vine can operate outside the chain of command to uncover the truth. But his investigation soon reveals that the disappearance heralds something much darker. And that there’s much more at stake than the life of a single spy…

Prologue

Istanbul, August 2016

‘I know a secret,’ he says. ‘A secret that changes everything.’

Solomon Vine pulls out the rickety plastic chair and sits down on the opposite side of the table. The room is stark and empty. Dust clings to the walls.

‘That wasn’t my question,’ Vine says, holding the man’s gaze. His voice is without colour, bare of any emotion.

‘No. But it is my answer.’

‘I don’t want your secrets, I want names.’

There is an interruption as the door screeches open. Gabriel Wilde fills the space, offering a slight nod of apology. He pads across the concrete flooring and takes the chair on Vine’s left. He slides over a manila folder. Vine doesn’t look at it immediately, as if he has already memorized its contents. Instead, it sits there, free of any official marking or classifica­ tion, anonymous and deniable.

Vine lets a beat of silence fall. He needs to make the sus­ pect hear the full, noiseless force of it. There is no one else here to save him. This isn’t official embassy territory, soft­ ened by rules and edicts. There are no platoons of lawyers ready to ambush the interrogation. He is theirs, to do with what they will.

You don’t understand,’ the man says now. There is a spike of volume in his voice. He leans forwards so his upper­body weight pivots on his elbows. Despite the handcuffs, he fights for dexterity with his hands, prodding his index finger at the

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table top in rhythm with his voice. ‘What I know changes everything. Whatever you think you can do, you are mistaken.’

Vine reaches for the file and brandishes it. He opens the cover and scans the first page.

‘Mobile ­phone records show recent contact with five British citizens who have travelled to Syria,’ he says. ‘We have evidence confirming the supply of fake passports and illegal arms. Her Majesty’s government has an isolation cell pre­ pared specially for your return home. With the material we have in this folder alone, you will be sent down for life . . . Write down the names of your contacts, and we can talk.’

The man looks up, lips creasing into a smile. It is not a reflex, but a carefully calibrated action, the jaw wounded with amusement.

‘There will be no trial, no sentence, no cell,’ he says.

‘No one will save you, Dr Yousef,’ says Vine. ‘No one even knows you’re here. You have disappeared off the face of the earth. You’re lucky you ran into us before the Americans. Though if you would like to be transferred, I’m sure that can be arranged . . .’

He shakes his head. This time the smile thickens into laughter. ‘One word from me and they will let me go . . . Trust me, they will call.’

‘Who will call?’ says Gabriel Wilde, breaking his silence. He gets up from the chair and starts roaming the boxy parameters of the room.

‘The people who matter,’ says Ahmed Yousef. ‘They always do. If they want my secret, they will pay the price. It is the terms of business. Nothing more.’

‘A secret that changes everything?’ says Wilde. He stops behind Yousef ’s chair and dips his voice to a whisper. ‘It

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better be a bloody good one. A grass can never be too careful . . .’

‘It’s the best,’ says Yousef. ‘They will call. You will see.’ ‘And if they don’t?’

Yousef doesn’t answer. He looks to the closed door. As if on cue, there is the flash of the alert light, a throb of red that upsets the blankness of the room. Vine feels the first cramp of unease as he gets up from the table and makes his way to the door.

It is cool outside. There is another sound behind, and Vine turns to see Wilde following him down the long line of grey corridor to the control room. An RMP guard all fi ety eyes and nervous speed waits with the phone.

‘Who is it?’

‘The switch at HQ,’ he says, handing over the red receiver.

As Vine waits to be connected, the guard turns to Wilde. ‘Your wife also called, sir. She needs you back at base. She

said it was urgent.’

Wilde doesn’t display any twinge of anxiety. Instead, he says to Vine: ‘You OK to finish this? I’ll be back as soon as I can . . .’

Vine nods, careful not to react at the mention of Rose. The control room is full of monitors, a glassy panorama of concrete floors and airless turnings. He sees Wilde make his way down the hall and in the direction of the car park. A voice emerges through the crackle on the other line.

‘Please hold for the Chief . . .’

One burr later, the gravelly tones of Sir Alexander Cecil fill the speaker.

‘Is it true?’ the voice says. ‘I’m sorry?’

‘Is it true, Vine? You have Ahmed Yousef in custody?’

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‘Yes,’ he says. ‘He’s not talking at the moment. But we’re getting there. The product he was carrying should be enough to put him away this time.’

There is no response on the end of the line. Vine can feel the weight of it, like a silent throat­clearing. ‘I never said this, Vine. Are we clear? This never came from me.’

‘I’m sorry?’

Youre to release Ahmed Yousef immediately. I don’t care where you drop him, but see that you do so within the next half hour.’

I know a secret . . . A secret that changes everything . . .

Vine halts, unable to reply immediately. Sweat begins to gather on his forehead, a tightness pressing on his gut. ‘The line’s bad. Repeat please.’

‘You caught it perfectly well, Vine. Just do it.’

Vine waits for another moment, topping up the compos­ ure in his voice. ‘What’s going on?’

‘Nothing’s going on,’ says Cecil. ‘Drop him and continue with whatever you were doing. Don’t ask questions. Not this time.’

‘Sir, we have direct evidence implicating Ahmed Yousef in the cases of at least five British citizens arriving in Syria. He is a priority­one target on the NSC and CIA Most Wanted lists. We have more than enough material here to prosecute. This makes no sense.’

Cecil’s voice frosts over now, the words newly brittle. ‘This isn’t a discussion, Vine. There are more important things going on here than you can possibly imagine. Carry out this order or I’ll damn well get someone else to.’

With that, the line cuts off. Cecil’s voice is replaced by a scratchy monotone. Vine hands the receiver back to the RMP guard. He glances at the monitors.

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He turns to the guard. ‘Is there anyone else in the building?’ ‘No, sir,’ he says. ‘Just you, me and the prisoner.’

Vine waits. Once said, the words can’t be unsaid. ‘Good. I want you to go dark until I say so. If anyone asks, blame it on a power cut.’ He notices the scrunch of concern on the man’s face. ‘Refer any questions to me.’

He looks up at the monitors for a final time to see Gabriel Wilde’s car inching out of the driveway escaping all conse­quences with immaculate timing. He watches as the guard begins methodically turning the cameras off, each screen blinking fuzzily and then blank.

Then he leaves the building and walks into the blast of heat outside. He unfurls a lighter and a cigarette. The sun bruises his face. He can already feel the pincers moving to­ wards him. Cecil will have engineered things in London to make sure the call was never logged. If it goes wrong, Cecil will be able to plausibly deny he ever gave instructions to let Ahmed Yousef free. But, if Vine doesn’t follow through, he will find the full might of the fifth floor against him. The game demands a scapegoat, and he is now theirs.

He keeps on smoking, letting the minutes drift away, try­ing to will things clearer. Eventually, he douses the final one and turns. As he walks, the words repeat, tumbling over themselves.

There are more important things going on here than you can possibly imagine . . .

Curiosity compels him forwards now. The secret looms like a challenge. He treads back through the dour hallways, not yet sure what he will do. But he finds himself suddenly longing to be away from here, tired of patrolling the huts and compounds, starved of oxygen and scenery; tired of the decisions and the choices.

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He buzzes back into the secure area and makes his way down the thin final corridor. The interrogation room lies at the end, aglow with a harsher whiteness. Vine wonders again what hold Yousef has on London. What does he know? What grubby deal has he engineered that sees him immune from further questioning? Why would the Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service intervene personally to demand his release?

I know a secret . . . A secret that changes everything . . .

Vine reaches the door and pauses for a moment. He feels a new anger begin to work its way up from the pit of his stomach until it fills his throat.

He presses his card against the scanner and hears the door click open. He tries to brush aside any final doubt as he steps into the brighter light. He knows what he will do, what he must do.

It is then that he stops. In front of him is an empty chair, a hollow space where Ahmed Yousef should be. But that isn’t it. There is something else wrong. He looks down at the floor and sees the first splashes of colour against the grey­ ness. It seems to ooze and wander according to a logic of its own. Slowly, he traces the source, a lump of shadow behind the table.

Ahmed Yousef is lying on his back, blood haloing around him. It looks like a gunshot wound. Without stopping to cal­culate the consequences, Vine finds himself pressing the alert button. A keening noise smothers the building.

Soon the steps of the RMP guard sound outside. The door opens with a ponderous click.

He knows they have minutes at best. With the amount of blood loss, they could already be too late. He strains to feel a pulse. But there is just flesh, slippery and raw.

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‘Call for an urgent medical team,’ he shouts. ‘We need to evacuate him now. As the guard turns, Vine says: ‘Find out who’s been in here and how the hell this could have happened.’

The delay seems to last for ever. He takes out the emer­gency medical kit and begins doing everything he can to stem the blood loss. But the blood spatters his fingers and up his arms. His clothes become damp and sticky. He tries again to find any signs of consciousness, feels just the fading echo of a pulse.

Minutes later, the guard returns. ‘Evac team on their way from base, sir. ETA five minutes.’ He starts to walk further into the room then stops and hovers.

‘What is it?’

Vine turns. He realizes what he must look like a butcher, or a surgeon.

‘I’ve found the card that was used to enter the building, sir,’ he says. ‘Ten minutes ago. With the CCTV down, that’s the only identifier we have.’

And?’ Vine says impatiently. Who was in here? Who did this?’

The guard doesn’t answer at first. He looks nervous, as if unable to summon the words.

‘It was you, sir.’

Meet the author…

Matthew Richardson studied English at Durham University and Merton College, Oxford. After a brief spell as a freelance journalist, he began working as a researcher and speechwriter in Westminster, and has also written speeches for senior figures in the private sector. My Name is Nobody is his first novel.

My Name Is Nobody is available now- published by Penguin Books

 

 

 

Helen Giltrow- The Distance

GILTROW

They don’t call her Karla anymore. She’s Charlotte Alton: she doesn’t trade in secrets, she doesn’t erase dark pasts, and she doesn’t break hit-men into prison. Except that is exactly what she’s been asked to do. The job is impossible: get the assassin into an experimental new prison so that he can take out a target who isn’t officially there. It’s a suicide mission, and quite probably a set-up. So why can’t she say no?

Can I just start by saying how I would love to fling my arms around Helen Giltrow and give her a jolly good hug. And here’s why. Over the course of the last couple of months, I have started and failed to finish at least half a dozen thrillers, soon becoming bored with the all too familiar set-ups, and predictable plots. What Giltrow has done is to construct an intelligent and thought provoking thriller that not only provided a slow-burning build up of tension, but was chockful of credible characters, and a tightly plotted narrative that never once made my attention falter. I was in this one all the way…

Starting with the intriguing premise of breaking someone into an experimental prison complex called The Program, to perform a hit, I was instantly intrigued by the depiction of this location. The Program works as an almost self-sufficient prison community, constructed around a run down neighbourhood of houses with its own places of business and rules, but is a nightmarish place to be incarcerated if you are not aligned with the head honchos. Hence, the idea of a professional hitman, Johanssen  needing to be placed within this complex to track down someone who may or may not be there, instantly provokes a taut tension to the story. With his actions overseen by the mysterious intelligence operative Charlotte Alten aka Karla, who has spent years selling secrets to shady criminals. Giltrow neatly builds up Karla’s reservations and fears for her former client Johanssen’s safety as he becomes a brutalised inmate of this violent jail- an excellent cast of baddies are at work here- seeking to avoid detection by those he has tangled with in the past. The depiction of his experience are violent and uncompromising, but this adds to inherent tension of the plot, as Johanssen seeks the elusive Cate, but why is she so hard to find and who wants her dead?

Alongside this taut and utterly riveting storyline, Giltrow ramps up the narrative structure with an exploration of Karla’s chequered career in the realm of secret intelligence, and weighting both plots perfectly, Giltrow retains an assured grasp throughout. Attention must be paid I found as this book in no way resembles the usual linear, and frankly quite boring, liturgy of espionage thrillers that currently populate crime and thriller sections throughout the land. Indeed, to my mind, the style of Giltrow’s writing can be viewed as a contemporary version of Helen MacInnes, which is no mean feat. Likewise, the characterisation of Karla herself, and Johanssen, are absolutely paramount to the engagement of the reader. Both are incredibly well-drawn with the necessary balance of steely-eyed determination, masking their dark secrets and ulterior motives, but with those wonderful moments of clarity that draw us closer to their true characters, despite their criminal tendancies. These are not your standard cardboard-cutout characters, and you will find your perception of both changing chapter by chapter, and I guarantee that Cate will also have you on tenterhooks throughout, as her life outside and inside The Program come under closer scrutiny. That’s all I’m saying…

As you can probably tell, I was really quite keen on this, and despite how long it has taken me to get round to reading the book, it was more than worth the wait and delivered in spades. Can’t wait to see what Giltrow produces next. Highly recommended.

Helen Giltrow was born and brought up in Cheltenham and read Modern History at Christ Church, Oxford. She has worked extensively in publishing, including ten years as a commissioning editor for Oxford University Press. She went freelance as an editor in 2001 and has since worked on a range of fiction, non-fiction and education titles. THE DISTANCE is her first novel. Helen’s writing has been shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award and the Telegraph ‘Novel in a Year’ Competition. Follow on Twitter @HelenGiltrow