Soldiering and novel writing may seem very different skill sets but there is a surprising amount of overlap. Both need precise, focused energy, an eye for detail and a quicksilver understanding of character. Chris Ryan, an ex-SAS corporal, Ollie Ollerton, a former team leader in the Special Boat Service and James Stejskal, once a US Special forces soldier and CIA officer, all combine these talents with verve in their latest action thrillers.
As the sole survivor of an SAS team ambushed by Russian paramilitaries in northern Syria, Danny Black — the protagonist in Chris Ryan’s Zero 22 (Coronet, £18.99) — is set on revenge, especially when the trail of death may lead back to Washington DC as well as Moscow. Meanwhile, in London Alice Goodenough, a young black MI6 officer — rather obviously named — is also on the Russians’ trail while constantly proving herself to what she calls the PMSs: her pale, male, stale, bosses.
A hyper-topical plot, some explosive action scenes and a story engineered as precisely as any of the small arsenal of weapons that Black deploys make Zero 22 an intelligent and enthralling read.
Ollie Ollerton served in Iraq and also worked there as a private security contractor. In Scar Tissue (Blink, £14.99), his debut novel, Alex Abbott is an alcoholic former Special Forces soldier, scraping a living in Singapore. When a text message arrives from his son Nathan in Iraq, where he has gone missing while serving with the British army, Abbott is too drunk to respond. Arriving in Baghdad, where he begins the search for Nathan, he soon finds himself drawn into a world where death comes easily.
Ollerton skilfully portrays the menace, chaos and endemic corruption of post-Saddam Iraq. A local potentate’s luxurious villa, with its swimming pool, accommodation for multiple wives and high-tech security system is deftly contrasted with the squalor and chaos beyond the gate. The prose is crisp and brisk, and Abbott has a powerful personal quest to drive the story but Ollerton — and other writers with alcoholic heroes — could usefully note that when it comes to writing about the lure of the bottle, less is definitely more.
Cold war-era Berlin is the literary gift that keeps on giving. In A Question of Time (Casemate, £16.99) James Stejskal brings a lively new twist to a familiar arena. The story unfolds in 1979 as Maximilian Fischer, a high ranking Stasi officer who is spying for the CIA, realises he may be compromised. Fischer has to get out but he cannot do it on his own. Enter Kim Becker, a special forces veteran of Vietnam. Becker and his team of undercover specialists are tasked with crossing the Wall and extracting Fischer.
This is an intriguing debut with echoes of Charles McCarry, another CIA veteran turned spy novelist. The tradecraft and operational planning are well-drawn and Stejskal takes us into the heart of the American spy set-up in Berlin. He still has room to hone his craft: early on in the book there is too much telling rather than showing, and Stejskal could deeper explore Fischer’s motivation and back story. But the plot feels authentic, and Berlin is vividly detailed, right down to the Stasi’s secret door in the Wall.
The Year of the Gun (Hodder & Stoughton, £19.99) is the third outing in HB Lyle’s engaging series of historical thrillers featuring Wiggins, a former street urchin and runner for Sherlock Holmes, turned agent and all-round tough guy for Britain’s nascent Secret Service.
It’s 1912 and Wiggins is heading to New York on the ship that cannot sink to find his lover Bela. The Titanic goes down of course but luckily for Wiggins he has been thrown off at the port of Cork for brawling. There is fighting aplenty at his next stop — Dublin — where he is recruited by the city’s gangster king.
The story rattles along at pace, the characters are engaging and the fight scenes burst with action. But Lyle’s great strength is in his depiction of time and place; from its stinking tenements, where babies cry from hunger, to its sinister docks and upmarket brothels, the Edwardian city — then still part of Britain — is brought to life in all its squalid, magnificent glory.
Adam LeBor is the author of ‘Kossuth Square’, a Budapest noir crime thriller
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