My latest vlog about “Evil Eye” is now on my YouTube channel…

TitleCardI just posted a new vlog about ‘Evil Eye – A Lissa Blackwood Thriller’ on my YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/NJZKVxQbRls

In this vlog I talk a bit about the Political-Economic-Social background to the story, share some of my inspirations for Lissa Blackwood and my hopes for finding an agent to help sell the series of books to a traditional publisher.

== There’s more about my writing at russellweb.org.uk, @LeeJ_Russell on Twitter

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The first draft of “Evil Eye – A Lissa Blackwood Thriller” has been completed!

soldiers~cropped2I’m really excited to announce that the first draft of “Evil Eye – A Lissa Blackwood Thriller”, the opening book in my new series of post-Brexit Conspiracy Thrillers, has been completed.

Research for this book began towards the end of 2016, planning lasted until about May 2017, and this draft was completed today!

I’m loving writing in this genre and enjoying the adventures that these wonderful characters are having.

Book 2 should be completed more quickly as much of the initial preparation for the series is already in place. In the meantime I’m looking for beta readers for ‘Evil Eye’ and starting to think about seeking an agent to help me sell the books… exciting times!

== There’s more about my writing at russellweb.org.uk, @LeeJ_Russell on Twitter

image: “#EB Photo January challenge” by Lee Roberts – Creative Commons – http://flickr.com

 

James Phelan – “The Spy” and “Dark Heart”…

This is my second review of James Phelan’s “Jed Walker” stories. Last time out I wrote about “The Hunted”, which was an Ok read. That story was reasonably well drawn but did feel a bit average (scoring 3 / 5 on the ‘Cloak & Dagger’ scale.). So how did the next two books I read do?

I’m not reading the books in order, which is a bit weird I suppose. The next one I picked up was “Dark Heart” JamesPhelan~DarkHeart– I enjoyed the trail of trying to understand if the character of Rachel Muertos was a ‘good guy’ or a ‘bad guy’… you thought she was probably definitely a protagonist, but then a little slip would happen and you’d wonder if you’d got that right. The trouble is that on the whole she felt a bit shallow, Walker felt a bit shallow, and the other characters don’t have a great deal of depth – why should we care about these people?

However, the final showdown at the Society of the Cincinnati was well done, the action flowed fast and was believable.

Sometimes Phelan’s style feels a bit odd. Try this line for example:

“And there’s two dead Syrians,” Walker assed. “All in the space of twenty four hours.” – Dark Heart, chapter 55.

I have no idea of what it means when someone ‘assed’, but that slang didn’t work for me.

Next up was “The Spy” – this one is “The First Jed Walker Thriller” and possibly the best of the 3 Phelan’s that I’ve read. The plot line is competent, well presented and trips along at a reasonable pace. JamesPhelan~TheSpyWe begin with Walker and a side-kick surveilling a roadhouse in Yemen where a terrorist HVT was expected to arrive. Things don’t go as Walker expects when a friendly drone does its best to kill him. A lovely plot follows about a private intelligence company starting a chain of terrorist attacks in order to convince the US government that they are still needed, even though Osama Bin Laden has been killed. Those attacks include an attempt to kill the Vice President, whose Secret Service codename is said to be ‘Zodiac’, and that name is used by the terrorists for their overall plans.

Walker ends up having to fight off every Security Agency possible as he follows the trail and trys to stop Zodiac. He eventually links up with FBI Agent Fiona Somerville, who starts off hunting him down before realising he is ‘a good guy’. Out of all the characters in the 3 books I enjoyed the scenes with Somerville the most; Phelan describes her well, she has realistic motivations, and is often in on the action.

I had 2 irritations with “The Spy”. Firstly, although Thrillers breathe suspense through a ticking clock, here Phelan does it much too overtly, often ending chapters with lines like “Twenty-four hours to deadline.” That was much too obvious for my liking and only really worked when just a few hours were left on the clock. Secondly, I didn’t like the formatting of page numbers at the bottom of each chapter opening but then at the top of every other page. In a couple of places that felt intrusive and broke my reading.

Overall these are better-than-average stories about the adventures of a fairly average protagonist. I enjoyed reading them once, but now don’t agree with the cover tag-line that ‘Jed Walker is right there in Reacher’s rear-view mirror’ – for me he’s quite a way back.

‘The Spy’ and ‘Dark Heart’ both score 3 / 5 on the ‘Cloak & Dagger’ scale.

== There’s more about my writing at russellweb.org.uk, @LeeJ_Russell on Twitter

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James Phelan – “The Hunted”…

JamesPhelan~TheHunted~010718Here’s my review of James Phelan’s “The Hunted” that I finished this afternoon…

This was the first ‘Jed Walker’, and indeed the first James Phelan book, that I’ve read. The book had a reasonable plot that took some time to unravel and the closing sequences in St Louis, Missouri, clipped past quickly enough to keep me reading to the end. The writing style is plain and simple. Unlike lesser authors in the genre, Phelan did not bog his story down by dwelling on dull descriptions of equipment or tactics.

The overall plot, involving the hushed-up discovery of weapons of mass destruction during the Iraq war, was believable and eventually well described.

When Phelan gets going his action sequences are fast and well-executed. For me, the plot progresses too slowly against his overt use of various ‘clocks’ to try and evoke a sense of urgency. The ticking clocks became too obvious while the characters seemed to move with too little urgency. Perhaps that was because I had not managed to get very involved with Jed Walker or the other leading characters, except for “Squeaker” who was drawn quite well.

On the front cover Lee Child is credited with saying that ‘Jed Walker is right there in Reacher’s rear-view mirror.’ I think that is an accurate assessment – it was a good story well executed, but Phelan seemed to still have some work to do before he could match Child’s storycraft skills. That’s not a huge critcism as Childs sets a high bar.

I’m looking forward to reading some more of Phelan’s books – I’m starting “The Spy” tomorrow and then have “Dark Heart” to follow. I’m looking forward to seeing how his writing develops across the novels.

“The Hunted” scores 3 / 5 on the ‘Cloak & Dagger’ scale.

== There’s more about my writing at russellweb.org.uk, @LeeJ_Russell on Twitter

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… but not every “le Carré” is a good “le Carré”…

As much as I enjoyed le Carré stories I shared in my first post, I have to say that I have very mixed feelings about “The Night Manager”. TheNightManager~coverIt started well and I had high hopes that I was about to be entertained with a masterpiece of observational writing. I have stayed at many hotels over the years, often arriving late after a long journey. This description of a Night Manager really resonated with my experience of late night check-ins:

“Jonathan Pine… took up his position in the lobby as a prelude to extending his hotel’s welcome to a distinguished late arrival… His gaze as he watched the door was steady as a maksman’s. He wore a carnation. At night he always did… [his] Smile of Gracious Welcome that he had worked up during his years in the profession: a sympathetic smile but a prudently restrained one, for he had learned by experience that guests, particularly very rich ones, could be tetchy after a demanding journey, and the last thing they needed on arrival was a night manager grinning at them like a chimpanzee.”

I would definitely classify myself as a tetchy late night traveller and that exposition is spot on. The problem is that we learn all of this within the first six pages, and not a lot of action happens after that. On reflection, why did it even take le Carré six pages to give us that much?

I found the book to be ponderous with rare pieces of interesting character observation. In the end I didn’t care about Pine, his past and regrets, his mission, how bad ‘Roper’ was, or indeed anything else in the story. It was all too slow with too little happening.

I don’t often do this, but I eventually gave up halfway through “The Night Manager”, which for me only scores 0.5 / 5 on the ‘Cloak & Dagger’ scale.

== There’s more about my writing at russellweb.org.uk, @LeeJ_Russell on Twitter

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The best place to begin? John le Carré…

There was a singular character that sucked me back into Thrillers when I started reading them in earnest last year… George Smiley, created by John le Carré.  Smiley is an odd character; to me he didn’t feel directly prominent but there was something about him that stuck in the back of mind, like he was watching me reading in the same way that he fictionally watched both Agents and the Establishment.

leCarre~cropMy first introduction to le Carré was through audiobook versions of ‘The Looking Glass War’, ‘A Murder of Quality’ and ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’. There is a combination of almost fatalistic, realistic cynicism in the stories that comes from both le Carré’s unique voice and the ever-present tensions of the Cold War. Each story lifts a fictional lid on what feels like cold, murky, secrets from the world of espionage. We know le Carré’s background and wonder if he is telling us a truth… if it is REALLY like that, something that most of us will never directly know the truth about. Interestingly, in his stories ‘the truth’ itself is fluid, and none of the characters seem to know the ‘real truth’ about what is happening.

LookingGlassIn ‘The Looking Glass War’ we are allowed to see the interplay of organisational rivalries between Smiley’s ‘Circus’ and Leclerc’s ‘The Department’. Leclerc’s organisation is waning and he wants it to regain its position in the Inelligence world. He arranges a secret mission to spy on a missile base in Eastern Germany, reactivating one of ‘The Department’s’ old wartime agents, Fred Leiser, for the mission. Leiser is poorly prepared and ill-equipped for the mission. He kills a guard when crossing the border and that death really shakes him. A German girl hides him in her hotel room, hoping he will take her back to the West. But Leiser makes mistakes with his radio procedure and forgets to change frequencies, allowing the East Germans to trace his transmissions. ‘The Circus’ then become fully aware of Leiser’s mission and Smiley persuades Leclerc to abandon him, saying that they can deny his role as a spy by highlighting his obsolete equipment and poor technique. The whole mission is a failure, Leiser is expendable and the existence of the missile base itself turns out to have probably been a lie from an unreliable source.

MurderOfQuality‘A Murder of Quality’ is more of a study of class differences in the early 1960’s. Smiley, who has now retired, is contacted by a old wartime colleague, Ailsa Brimley. She has received a letter from Stella Rode, a reader of the small Christian magazine that she edits, saying that her husband is plotting to kill her. Smiley agrees to investigate the claim but Stella Rode is killed before he can take action. Smiley then moves through the tensions in Carne between “town and gown” (a rich field that Colin Dexter made great use of in his ‘Inspector Morse’ stories), and the religious divisions between Church of England adherents and non-conformists. His investigation slowly reveals a hidden side of Carne life that is full of illicit sexual activity, blackmail and other abuses before he eventually ‘solves the case’. This story felt like an interesting side-show holiday for Smiley.

SpyWhoCameInI think that le Carré is best known today for ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ (1974), but it is his 1963 novel ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ that resonates most strongly with me. I have very strong memories of the closing days of the Cold War which often resonate in my own writing. Films like ‘When the Wind Blows’, ‘The Day After’ and ‘Threads’ had shown just how devastating a nuclear war would be. I remember news reports of US Cruise Missile launchers prowling the UK countryside on manoeuvres, practicing for the day that they might need to rain nuclear hell on the USSR. For a teenager growing up in those days, reports about anti-nuclear protests by CND, the Falklands War, the Reagan Administration’s ‘Star Wars project’ (ie SDI) , social uprisings in Eastern Europe, the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification made ‘The World’ seem like a very dangerous place… it was, and it still is.

‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ is a delicious trip into that Cold War paranoia. When the West Berlin office of the Circus loses its last Agent in East Germany, the Station Head, Alec Leamas, is recalled to London. Leamas is persuaded by the Circus chief, known as ‘Control,’ to take on one last operational mission. He is to fake his defection to an East German intelligence officer called Mundt, so that he can eventually frame Mundt as being a double agent for Britain. The framing is indirect and Leamas will have to manipulate one of Mundt’s subordinates called Fiedler, who already suspects that Mundt is a double agent.

SpyWhoCameIn~novelCoverTo come the East Germans’ attention as a potential defector, Leamas is sacked from the Circus and sinks into a degrading, alcoholic life, taking a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain as his lover. Leamas is, of course, eventually recruited as a defector and taken to East Germany. He drip feeds a story about payments to a double agent in the Abteilung and eventually meets Fiedler, where more of his tale is revealed.

Mundt has Fiedler and Leamas arrested and tortured. They are both summoned to present their cases to a tribunal convened by the leaders of the East German régime. Leamas reveals a series of secret bank account payments that Fiedler has matched to the movements of Mundt. Fiedler has other evidence that implicates Mundt as being a British agent.

Leamas’s mission falls apart when his lover is brought into the hearing. She reveals that Smiley has paid for the lease on her flat, and that she had promised Leamas that she would not look for him after he disappeared. Realising his cover is blown, Leamas offers to tell all in exchange for her freedom.  Fiedler is arrested.

Mundt unexpectedly helps Leamas and his lover to escape. During their drive to Berlin, Leamas realises and reveals that Mundt must be a double agent reporting to Smiley, and the purpose of his mission must have been to compromise Fielder, probably because he was getting close to exposing Mundt. In the closing action of the book both Leamas and his lover are shot trying to escape from East Germany while climbing over the Berlin Wall. The reasons for their deaths are complicated and I won’t spoil you fun by revealing them here. — A wonderful story that fully evokes a sense of the dangers of the Cold War.

I have since read ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ and enjoyed the book as much as the audio version. I don’t care much for the film version, however.

So, that’s my le Carré review – he definitely gets 5/5 on the ‘Cloak & Dagger’ scale!

== There’s more about my writing at russellweb.org.uk, @LeeJ_Russell on Twitter

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image of “JOHN LE CARRE AT THE BODLEIAN LIBRARY” by ‘summonedbyfells’ on flickr.com – https://www.flickr.com/photos/summonedbyfells/6892145730/  – image tagged as Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

 

 

Welcome to the Thriller Reviews blog…

Thanks for joining me!

“It’s the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies?”
― John le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Years ago I was a prolific reader in most genres and sucked up every experience I could get my hands on. After a while I got absorbed in sci-fi and eventually started to write it as well… but my love of other genres didn’t fade.

Over the last year I have read a lot of spy, thriller and crime stories as research for my latest adventure/espionage thriller novel. I rediscovered how much I love these stories, and that’s what I want to share in this blog… my love of page turning novels & heart thumping movies.

I hope you love the stories I’ll be reviewing, and I’d love to hear from you all…

Happy reading!

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