Also today, on the subject of action/crime novels with a place close to my heart, I’ll be reviewing and discussing David Gilman’s epic thriller, THE ENGLISHMAN. If you’re looking for a winter read, this would be a particularly good choice as it takes you all the way from the dank, chilly London backstreets to the blizzard-swept forests of central Russia. And trust me, it’s every bit as tough as it sounds.
If you’re only here for the David Gilman review, that’s perfectly okay. Just zoom on down today’s post. You’ll find the relevant item, as always, at the lower end in the Thrillers, Chillers section.
But don’t be too hasty. First, why don’t we talk a little about ...
1) Is this a Mark Heckenburg novel by any chance? (Or, as a couple have also asked, does it feature Lucy Clayburn?).
2) If not, why not?
3) And if not, when are we actually going to see further investigations by these other two characters?
The answers, in this order, are: 1 No (and No). 2 Because I have to have some variation of themes and characters in my writing. 3 Very soon (so please don’t worry).
But today, we’re going to chat about NEVER SEEN AGAIN (the finished version of which, by the way, is also available for pre-order right NOW).
As you may have deduced, this new novel doesn’t involve a police investigation. Or at least it doesn’t centre on one. The reason for this is simple. I thought it would be an interesting experiment (maybe for just this one book, maybe for more, who knows?) to step away from the hi-tech world of modern law enforcement, where every conceivable kind of gadget and database is at the hero’s fingertips, and strip things down to their basics: pit a solitary character, who has nothing going for him but his wits and experience, into a tense struggle with a nameless but colossal opponent.
It might be fun, I felt, to devise a fiendish plot and then throw an ordinary bloke into it, an everyman who has no police powers or training, no intelligence services to draw upon, no access to firearms units, no firearms training in his own right, and perhaps most important of all, no experience even of unarmed combat outside the normal rough-and-tumble of everyday life.
But how would such an individual get on?
First of all, he’d have to be highly driven.
In direct response to that, I’m not going to say anymore about the plot of NEVER SEEN AGAIN, but I don’t think I’ve ever written about a character who is more personally driven than David Kelman in this book – so that’s one box ticked.
Secondly, he’d have to have at least a bit of nous. You could not just walk off the street and investigate a professional abduction with any realistic hope of making headway.
Perhaps a more interesting question, though … and one that I really sought to tackle when writing this novel, was: where does an average Joe stand in terms of morality when a prospect like this comes along? I mean, okay, anyone who considers themselves an upstanding citizen would want to help break a serious criminal case if they got the chance. But where do you stand ethically if you obtain a piece of vital evidence and decide to use it for your own investigation rather than hand it to the experts?
Superficially, that’s going to make you an offender in your own right … isn’t it?
Well, as I’ve said, I’m not going to divulge any essential plot points for NEVER SEEN AGAIN today, but suffice to say that, even though David Kelman has strong and worthy reasons for wanting to crack this case himself, it’s a moral grey area even here.
It’s a real conundrum, but it’s also part of a much bigger question.
Equally impressively, in 2002 the Boston Globe broke the news that countless crimes of a serious sexual nature had been committed inside the Catholic Church in the United States, which led to many criminal prosecutions and lawsuits and for the first time ever, turned an international spotlight on the whole shameful affair.
We have British examples too. In 1997 the Daily Mail took the gamble of naming the five white men suspected of brutally killing black teenager Stephen Lawrence, none of whom at this stage had been convicted, labelling them ‘murderers’ and challenging the group to sue them if they weren’t, which roused public fury against the accused and led to severe criticism of the police for botching the investigation.
Okay, I’m not saying the press are all angels. Very far from it. I’m sure it wouldn’t take much research to produce an equally eye-catching list of occasions when journalists have behaved shockingly badly, using extremely underhand methods to get stories.
It’s swings and roundabouts. Even in my own experience, there were some journalists who would sell their souls to get the goods, but at the same time there were others who, purely on a point of principle, would not run stories that were damaging or intrusive to individuals if they felt it was not in the public interest.
Yes, there are definitely two sides to this much-maligned industry, but sometimes the dividing line between the two might be a tad blurry. And NEVER SEEN AGAIN, I suppose, was my first big opportunity to examine this issue closely.
Now, all right … it’s a crime-thriller, not a polemic on the subject of journalistic integrity. I’m not claiming the latter and never would. But this twilight zone between the acceptable and unacceptable in terms of news gathering and reporting has long bugged me, and is a matter that is particularly relevant in the modern age, so I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy sticking my nose into it.
But don’t worry. No matter how serious I might consider the subtext, I’d never let that get in the way of what I hope are my novels’ usual traits of thrills, spills and intrigue. There is a dark and disturbing puzzle at the heart of NEVER SEEN AGAIN, which simply has to be solved – and it isn’t the sort of puzzle you can get to the bottom of sitting in an armchair with a laptop on your knee.
I’ll say no more about it, other than to reiterate that I’m especially excited about this one. I can’t wait to reconnect with my readers, and to hit you all with what I hope will be my usual mix of eerie mystery and hardboiled action.
As I say, NEVER SEEN AGAIN is published next March, but available for pre-order right NOW. Again though, if you can’t wait that long and would like to get hold of an electronic proof, all you need do is register on NETGALLEY and pre-order. It isn’t live yet, but it won’t be long.
THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …
An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.
In 2013, airborne companies from the French Foreign Legion attack Al-Qaeda bases dug into the mountains of Mali in West Africa. It’s a ferocious battle, which sees the terrorists destroyed. But along the way, paratrooper Dan Raglan, an Englishman – but only one of many non-French nationals in the Legion – is wounded both physically and mentally.
Many years later, in London, Jeremy Carter, a successful banker, is car-jacked by Russian gunmen, who kill his driver and take him hostage, though his adopted son, Steven, manages to escape. A whirlwind of events follows, the Metropolitan Police swinging into action but, having deduced that this is not a terrorist incident, opting to keep the investigation in-house.
MI6, however, are not so easily fobbed off. Ultra-cool section boss, Maguire, is convinced that Carter has not been abducted because he’s a wealthy banker but because he’s an undercover intelligence officer who’s been working several highly classified missions focussed on the Russian state. Maguire is content to let the police believe they are dealing with organised crime – in fact, in some ways it is organised crime, Russian spy chiefs having learned that using gangsters to carry out their hits means they have more deniability – but to maintain his low profile, he officially keeps his own people out of it while unofficially putting into play a single secret asset from outside the fold.
This asset is ‘the Englishman’, ex-Legionnaire Dan Raglan, now living in a rural enclave in central France with other retired members of his regiment. Raglan wouldn’t otherwise take the job, but when the request is delivered to him by junior MI6 operative, Abash ‘Abbie’ Khalsa, and he hears that Jeremy Carter and his family, old friends, are involved, he knows that he must participate.
Raglan is a complex character. A battle-scarred veteran who is now a man of peace, he has never really questioned the role he played in many clandestine wars, but he’s still haunted by that day in Mali, when he had no option but to kill a child terrorist. Even his knowledge that the Carters are the victims of the London attack might not have been adequate to bring him back fully into action, but when he learns that young Steven, twelve years old, is still lost somewhere in the city, also with a target on his back, there is no chance that he won’t respond.
With the assistance of Abbie, a spook so low in the pecking order that no one will even notice she’s absent from her desk, Raglan searches the capital. Thanks to protocols Carter put in place in the event of his family ever being targetted, the young boy, Steven, has survived. Though he is mentally devastated by what happened, the knowledge he possesses assists in the investigation massively.
It isn’t long before Raglan uncovers the presence of someone he knows of old, a Russian ex-special forces soldier turned lethal assassin, Yegor ‘JD’ Kutznetzov, who evidently is here in London with his gang of handpicked killers not just to kidnap Jeremy Carter, but to extract every ounce of information from him they can. That will mean prolonged, brutal torture, and hardened though he is to the dark side of international espionage, even Carter will be hard-put to withstand this for long.
At least Raglan is no longer alone in the hunt. Alongside the spirited but inexperienced Abbie, he is also assisted by Major Elena Sorokina, a senior Moscow police detective, who has arrived in London because JD murdered four Russian cops. She is a cold, gorgeous presence, but she knows her stuff and is almost feral when it comes to combat.
Though it’s been marketed as a Cold War-type thriller of the Len Deighton / John le Carré school, The Englishman, in my opinion at least, owes more to Lee Child or Tom Clancy. Our main protagonist here is highly intelligent and expertly trained, but he’s a roughneck too, who can smash down doors with a single kick and won’t hesitate to pull the trigger on any number of opponents.
All that said, he isn’t 007. As I intimated earlier, Raglan is a realistically complex character.
Like Bond, he was orphaned as a child and taken in by a caring foster family. Also like Bond, this still meant that he had a dysfunctional childhood, which as an adult made him an ideal candidate for a career in the world of cloaks and daggers. But unlike Bond, in Raglan’s case this was the commando arm of the French Foreign Legion, a notoriously tough training regime and a combat force that would send him into action time and again, often in wars that were never even declared.
As such, he has run a gauntlet of battlefront ordeals. This has left him older and wiser than his years, with contacts across the secretive military world and a wealth of frontline knowledge, an experience gleaned from theatres as varied as deserts, jungles and bullet-riddled inner city backstreets. But Raglan has suffered too. He has a dark inner self and difficulties forming meaningful relationships. His only real friends are fellow ex-Legionnaires, most of whom live like he does: off the grid. When he goes back into action, he slips into it effortlessly, as though that is now his real purpose and trying to live like a civilian a waste of time.
If Dan Raglan isn’t tailor-made to be the focal point of a whole series of novels to follow, then I’ve never encountered another character who is (and indeed, this very week I’ve learned that a timely sequel, Betrayal, is scheduled for publication in January). But do you root for him? Do you feel his pain? Do you shudder with genuine horror at the unimaginably difficult mission this novel confronts him with?
I’m not sure that Raglan is ultra-sympathetic. He’s too hard and too adept at what he does to ever be considered vulnerable. But there is sufficient depth here for him to be interesting. There is certainly much more to him than the average Hollywood action man, easily enough to keep you hooked even in the unlikely event the skilfully-choreographed action scenes don’t.
The other characters may lean a little towards stock: Maguire the MI6 chief who, while ostensibly affable, is not entirely trustworthy; Abbie the feisty, spirited underling with lots of guts but so much to learn; Sorokina a wintry Russian beauty of the classical sort. But that said, it all works. Everyone involved has enough about them to make The Englishman an intense and immersive experience.
It helps, of course, that David Gilman writes with such authority. Formerly a creator of historical novels, he’s also an ex-soldier who knows his military procedures, his weapons and combat strategies, while his battle-scenes, most of which are up close and personal in the confined spaces of urban dereliction or the cramped, frozen forests of the Russian taiga, are fast, brutal affairs, in which you feel every gut-thumping impact of bullet striking body, every bone-crunching punch, kick or karate chop. Yes, there are deaths aplenty in The Englishman, so be warned: some of them are protracted and gruesome (Gilman certainly makes you realise what it would take to kill someone hand-to-hand, and what kind of person you’d need to be, and it’s not edifying).
This is a full-on thriller all-round, so even when we aren’t involved in physical confrontation, the pace is unrelenting, a subliminal clock ticking as the good guys race from one vital clue to the next, the tension cranking up constantly through awareness that at any moment our heroes could stray into the crosshairs of a bunch of antagonists who are genuinely among the worst of the worst.
The plot in some ways might not ring true. It’s an incredible assignment that Raglan finishes up undertaking. To call it ‘daunting’ would be an understatement even for the toughest undercover agent. But when it’s as speedy and exhilarating a read as The Englishman, I’m not sure that matters. I should point out, though, that David Gilman is not just an action writer. As a wordsmith in general, his talent is prodigious, his prose descriptive but never fulsome, and easily accessible. He carries you through this huge story with deceptive ease, remaining clear and concise at all times.
It may not be the most original concept, but for those who enjoy their international thrillers, The Englishman is as good as any of the rest and better than most. First-rate fun.
And now my usual folly as I attempt to cast this beast in the event that a film or TV company gets interested and drops me a line to ask my opinion. (Obviously the latter won’t happen, but I’d be surprised if the former doesn’t; this one is made for the big screen).
Dan Raglan – Michael Fassbender
Major Elena Sorokina – Yuliya Snigir
Yegor ‘JD’ Kutznetzov - Danila Kozlovsky
Abash Khalsa – Hazel Keech
Jeremy Carter – Mark Strong
Maguire – Owen Teale
Yefimov – Konstantin Lavronenko