For decades now, the world is so fixated with the peril from Islamist terror that the earlier, ‘conventional’ threats, like transnational organised crime, attract a lower level of attention, despite these gangs having the means, capability, connections and intent to cause mayhem against countries with governments they deem “enemies”. And, as this thriller shows, they can mount quite a formidable danger.
A British man is found murdered in near a lawless town on Colombia’s Pacific coast, but what the local police don’t know he was a British intelligence operative. When news reaches London, there is commotion for in one of his last reports, the agent had hinted he was on trail of something big, involving a mysterious “third party”.
Sent to investigate is Luke Carlton, an ex-Special Boat Service commando with his own tortured past and now under contract to MI6 for especially dangerous missions.
And trouble is not far away – soon he is attacked in his hotel room by three gangsters working for a particularly psychopathic narcotics trafficker, and shoots two dead, ruffling feathers severely at home. Though Carlton manages to track down the agent’s local contact and obtain some information about the threat, his impetuous plan, without reference to his superiors, to mount a raid on the drug lord’s mansion to seize him, misfires badly. He and a squad of the elite Colombian anti-narcotic force are captured, and while they are summarily executed, he is marked for a more painful death.
But thanks to his over-confident, gloating captors, he manages to escape and reach home. While the broad contours of the threat are identified, the devil is in the details. And Carlton is again well-involved in the operation but will the full resources of the British state be able to detect and defuse the new threat? And will Carlton be able to concentrate on his mission when those close to him are in trouble?
Frank Gardner, the BBC’s Security Correspondent, pulls out all the stops in his debut novel, where he well uses his extensive, “insider” knowledge of security matters to craft an explosively thrilling story, apt for the 21st century, of not only how intelligence is obtained but how it is deliberated and acted upon (with some sections no less than Le Carre at his best).
Moving between South America – at its most squalid to opulent but always dangerous – to Britain and the seas around with a tense set of scenes in Pyongyang, the narrative brings together violent drug barons and their equally unconscientious operatives, a full spectrum of intelligence and security agents of all shades and capabilities, gung-ho special force operatives, and more as it builds up to a pulsating and tense climax on the streets of London where a special ceremony is underway.
Also making the book representative of the 21st century thrillers is the depiction of the new-look British security services – not only does it have more women, but the flamboyantly-dressed Syed or “Sid” Khan is the director, counter-terrorism at MI6 while Vikram Sharma handles Corporate Communications and reports directly to the director, and in MI5, Sangita Lal is from Task Force Support and Jenny Li a case officer.
There are some shortcomings – the nexus between the drug baron and the source of the weapon is not adequately unexplained, the fate of several characters is not explicitly mentioned, the kidnapping element ends as anti-climatically, and Carlton’s tragic childhood and slightly problematic love life doesn’t add much to the plot. On the other hand, Gardner is a dab hand by ratchetting up the tension with episodes of calmness, and showing how lines between the terrorists and security forces, as far as methods may be concerned, are not that firm.
And most of all, he breaks new ground by using a new source and setting for a threat, rather than the usual suspects, which he could have resorted to being a long time correspondent in the Middle East (he was attacked by terrorists in Saudi Arabia in 2005, his cameraman was killed and he left severely injured and partially paralysed but worked hard to return to an active lifestyle). It is this newness that makes this a must read.
By Vikas Datta