Review: Better Off Dead by Lee Child & Andrew Child

“Better Off Dead” is Andrew Child’s second time behind the wheel of his brother Lee’s Jack Reacher franchise, and it’s another perfectly formed action thriller that sees the former military policeman turned nomadic dispenser of extrajudicial justice face up against criminal mastermind Waad Dendoncker in a remote town on the US-Mexico border. 

Its opening reminded me of the seventh Reacher novel, “Persuader,” which also began in medias res: there, Reacher shot a cop while attempting to foil a kidnapping; here, we’re introduced to Dendoncker at the morgue as he identifies the body of a man, confirmed dead by the coroner: it’s — no, it can’t be! — Jack Reacher.

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Review: The Devil’s Advocate by Steve Cavanagh

I love a thriller whose premise can be boiled down to one sentence. Steve Cavanagh is the master of it. That tantalising “what if?” hook.

In the case of “The Devil’s Advocate” — his sixth Eddie Flynn novel — it’s diabolically simple: what if the district attorney responsible for sending more men to their deaths than any other DA in the history of the United States had spent his career orchestrating murders, and manipulating evidence and juries, to guarantee guilty verdicts? 

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Review: Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Kotaro Isaka’s “Bullet Train” gathers together an eclectic mix of underworld assassins on board the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Morioka, their fates entwined by the powerful crime lord Minegishi, for reasons that come to light during their 240–320 km/h journey.

The action flits persistently between the perspectives of the various contract killers on board. I won’t mention them all, because every page offers a potential landmine revelation, but here’s a taster:

There’s Nanao, the unluckiest assassin in the world, who is there to steal a suitcase full of cash. There are the two fruits — the calm, scholarly Tangerine, and his Thomas the Tank Engine-obsessed partner, Lemon — who are tasked with safeguarding both Minegishi’s son, and the suitcase. Kimura is in a nearby carriage, an ex-alcoholic (and ex-assassin) and single parent who wants revenge on the teenager who pushed his boy off a rooftop. But ‘The Prince’ isn’t going to go down without a fight. His outwardly youthful innocence masks his wicked cunning. The kid is actually the most psychopathic of the lot. 

In less assured hands the reader might not be able to see the forest through the trees, but Isaka (via his translator Sam Malissa) is remarkably adept at letting each character have a moment to make a lasting impression. And while it would be an exaggeration to suggest we form any sort of emotional connection with the cast — they are most assuredly bad people — they’re delineated beyond what you might expect, thanks to regular flashbacks and philosophical asides; not to mention countless scenes involving a character holding a gun to the head of another and gabbing.

“Bullet Train” is coated with a thick sheen of surreality, its most serious moments perforated with a whimsy that never quite turns into laugh-out-loud, but renders the violence more cartoonish than gratuitous. It’s ripe for film adaptation, a kind of “Murder on the Orient Express” directed by Tarantino.

Published: 16 March 2021
ISBN: 9781787302594
Imprint: Harvill Secker
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 432
RRP: $32.99

Review: Every Vow You Break by Peter Swanson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is an audacious, twist-filled thriller whose enjoyment hinges on whether you’re able to buy into its central conceit, which morphs outlandishly from its opening premise, when Abigail Baskin enters her marriage to ridiculously wealthy Bruce Lamb carrying a secret.

During her bachelorette party weekend a few weeks before her wedding, Abigail slept with a stranger named Scottie. Although she’s wracked by guilt, she decides not to mention her one night stand to Bruce: the ramifications would be severe given his (ominous) stance on fidelity. So she’ll live with the secret, and it will be hers alone. Or so she hopes. Soon Scottie emails Abigail suggesting they share a deep connection. They’re soulmates. They should be together.

Abigail ignores him.

She marries Bruce, and towards the end of their wedding night, she thinks she spots Scottie. Again, she considers owning up to Bruce. Their honeymoon to a secluded Maine island serves as the perfect distraction. Abigail can deliberate, in peace, in these tranquil surroundings.

But Scottie’s there too. And another guest, who shares Abigail’s plight: a secret from her husband. What happens next is bloody and violent, and will stretch some reader’s credulity to the limit; maybe beyond. There’s no question that Peter Swanson has crafted a breakneck thriller. And it goes places I didn’t expect it to, which is preferential to another assembly-line thriller. Nothing about the opening of “Every Vow You Break” telegraphs its wild climax, which sees Abigail taking on a virulent manifestation of powerful men committed to patriarchy. Ultimately implausible, but also unputdownable. 

ISBN: 9780571358502
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 320
Published: 30th March 2021
Publisher: Faber

Review: The Old Enemy by Henry Porter

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The arrival of a new Henry Porter novel will forever be accompanied by a sense of sweet nostalgia. When his debut “Remembrance Day” was published in 1999, I distinctly remember my father reading a copy of it poolside in a Phuket resort — I think the Jack Higgins quote on the cover was the key selling factor, ‘The best book of its kind I’ve read since “The Day of the Jackal'” — while I read my copy of Raymond Benson’s James Bond novel “Doubleshot.” Back then, Dad did all the book buying. Nowadays it’s me sharing my Henry Porter’s. The cycle is complete.

“The Old Enemy” is the perfect culmination of Porter’s two most recent spy thrillers. Though it can be read as a standalone, it rewards readers who’ve been with this cast of characters from the beginning, when former MI6 agent Paul Samson was tasked with tracking a thirteen-year-old Syrian refugee with vital intelligence relating to an ISIS terrorist cell (“Firefly”), and later hired by philanthropist Denis Hisami to find his kidnapped wife — and Samson’s former lover — Anastasia (“White Hot Silence”).

In “The Old Enemy” we learn much of the turmoil faced by Porter’s characters in these preceding volumes was orchestrated by a Cold War-era nemesis that has infiltrated the highest echelons of the UK and US government and industry. They’ve assassinated one of Britain’s finest spymasters (and one of Porter’s legacy characters, who has appeared beyond this trilogy) Robert Harland, exposed Denis Hisami to a nerve agent, and dispatched a hitman to assassinate Samson.

Porter keeps his complex story from snarling by crosscutting chapters between Anastasia and Samson as they work to expose and dismantle this immense Kremlin cabal from different sides of the world. There’s a barrage of finely-paced action set-pieces, electrified by his crisp prose, but Porter writes espionage fiction for the more discerning thriller reader, with a greater focus on character and atmosphere. If you’ve done all of le Carré, Cumming, Greene and Ambler, and still crave more? Porter’s the guy you should be reading.

ISBN: 9781529403299
ISBN-10: 1529403294
Series: Paul Samson Spy Thriller
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 416
Available: 26th October 2021
Publisher: Quercus Books

Review: The 22 Murders of Madison May by Max Barry

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

If you’ve read any of Max Barry’s previous works ― particularly “Lexicon,” which remains the gold standard for a rip-roaring, up-all-night page-turner ― you won’t need any prompting to pick up “The 22 Murders of Madison May.” The guy writes tornado-paced blockbusters; techno-thrillers in the vein of Michael Crichton, with the pell-mell velocity of Blake Crouch. His latest is another relentless genre mashup: a dimension-hopping psychological thriller about one woman’s pursuit of a serial killer across parallel earths.  

Barry is a spectacular entertainer. But plenty of writers can conjure a high concept; a “what if” scenario. A select few are able to marry this with a cast of characters the reader cares about, that are developed beyond caricatures, or fodder to be annihilated in epic circumstances as dictated by an outlandish plot. The titular Madison May, for example ― the serial victim ― is fleshed out beyond mere prey, or a plot device, as each iteration of her is granted page-time to further establish her.

“The 22 Murders of Madison May” is a thriller of cyclonic speed and intensity. Barry has a gift for sustaining momentum that never lets up, and for creating scenarios and characters you won’t soon forget.

ISBN: 9780733645808
ISBN-10: 0733645801
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Available: 30th June 2021
Publisher: Hachette Australia

Review: Relentless by Mark Greaney

Mark Greaney’s 10th Gray Man novel reads like an R18+ “Mission: Impossible” blockbuster, a pedal-to-the-metal action thriller that doesn’t let up from its opening, when CIA Poisoned Apple operative Zack Hightower is nabbed by goons from a Venezuelan intelligence service in a Caracas marketplace when he’s tracking a presumed dead (but actually treasonous) former NSA computer scientist. 

When CIA deputy director for operations Matthew Hanley learns of Hightower’s failed mission he assigns fellow Poisoned Apple agent Court Gentry — the assassin formerly known as The Gray Man — to finish the job; nevermind the fact he’s still recovering from injuries suffered during a previous operation. But that’s the thing about action heroes: no matter how racked they are by pain and exhaustion, they always find a way — although Court’s rogues gallery has rarely been so substantial or lethal as they are in “Relentless.”

Bullets fly as Court faces off against American mercenaries working for the UAE, an unscrupulous international spy agency, and Russian agents hunting Zoya Zakharova, the love of Court’s life, and — you guessed it — also a Poisoned Apple asset. By now Greaney’s characters have enough flesh and blood to be convincing rather than mere gun-totting goons, and although he has a Clancy-esque eye for detail, narrative momentum never gets bogged down in the nitty-gritty particulars of the weaponry and gadgetry. 

Greaney unabashedly delivers what fans of action-lit desire. Readers who desire the subtlety and subtext of John le Carré may cringe at the undulated carnage on these pages, but those who’ve been with The Gray Man since day dot will delight in it. This is grade-A action pulp, and I can’t wait for the next one.

ISBN: 9780751578454
ISBN-10: 0751578452
Series: Gray Man
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 528
Published: 23rd February 2021
Publisher: Little Brown

Review: The Frenchman by Jack Beaumont

Jack Beaumont is the nom de plume for a former French fighter pilot turned spy for the French foreign secret service, the DGSE, who has now turned his hand to writing espionage fiction — and this is his first.

“The Frenchman” is moulded like a le Carré novel. Forget your super-agents like Court Gentry and Ethan Smoak, who go into every situation guns blazing (and whose violent escapades I am addicted to) — for Alec de Payns it’s all about long, detailed mission prep: staking out locations, trailing suspects, ruminating about possible scenarios. The tradecraft of espionage is all about nailing the mundane details, Alec has been trained to kill, but if gunplay’s involved, it’s a sign things have gone to shit. And in “The Frenchman” things very much have gone to shit.

Dealing with the fallout of a bad operation in Palermo and the possibility of a mole inside the secretive Y Division of the DGSE, Alec is tasked to investigate a secret biological weapons facility in Pakistan. It’s not a one-man infiltration job — you’d have to call Ethan Hunt for that — but an assignment for a small team, whose mission is essentially to sit, and wait, and look. It soon becomes apparent the facility is manufacturing a weaponised bacteria capable of killing millions — and Paris is their target. These are some very powerful, very well connected terrorists, whose reach quite possibly extends into the DGSE itself — painting a target on the backs of Alec’s wife, Romy, and their two children.

Beaumont’s steady escalation of the risks Alec faces, and the exceedingly realistic ways he tackles them, make “The Frenchman” an exemplary addition to the genre. Most impressively, for a guy who has been there and done it, he never burdens the reader with superfluous info dumps; there’s no heavy detailing of weaponry or gadgets. And he cleverly works in the familiar “family in peril” trope without divesting Romy’s agency, or casting her as a damsel in distress.

The writing is smooth, the plotting precise. This is good, le Carré -esque entertainment.

Category: Fiction
ISBN: 9781760529383
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Pub Date: January 2021
Page Extent:400
Format: Paperback – C format

Thriller Roundup: Mick Herron’s Slough House and Gregg Hurwitz’s Prodigal Son

And so here we are with “Slough House,” the seventh instalment in Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series, and “Prodigal Son,” the sixth Orphan X novel by Gregg Hurwitz: two thrillers seismically disparate in approach, both dragging long coattails of continuity, both extraordinarily polished page-turners. 

“Prodigal Son” is a kinetic, breathless, action-packed masterpiece that sees Evan Smoak — former government operative Orphan X turned former vigilante harbinger of justice, “the Nowhere Man” — snapped from retirement by a phone call from a woman claiming to be his mother. She wants Evan to protect a former member of the Pride House Group Home he was plucked from as a teenager to be moulded into an assassin. Andrew Duran has landed himself a James Bond-level adversary, who wields tiny, murderous drones as his weapons of choice; not to mention a sadistic brother-sister team of killers.

Hurwitz is the king of action-lit, operating in the same realm as Ludlum, Greaney, Carr and Flynn; a veneer of authenticity regarding the technology described, but the action itself amplified to “Mission: Impossible” levels. Here, Smoak can survive a head on vehicular collision with little more than whiplash; in Mick Herron’s universe, such an ordeal is likely to kill the character involved, or if they’re lucky enough to survive, have them so bent and broken we’ll be reading about it further in future series entries. Herron’s the closest contemporary approximation to John le Carre we have, albeit his books are drenched in wry humour, the politicking and intelligence gathering played for equal parts drama and comedy.

In “Slough House,” Jackson Lamb’s Slow Horses — MI5 operatives banished from the higher echelons of Regent’s Park for a variety of shortcomings and vices —have had their personal information purged from government computers, while veteran members are being stalked by Russian agents. It’s all connected to bureaucratic manoeuvring by Diana Taverner, the First Chair at Regent’s Park; although in this instance she may’ve bitten off more than she can chew.

Hurwitz is a master of orchestrating mayhem, the sort involving gut battles, harrowing high-speed escapes and lethal hand-to-hand fights. Herron builds his plots slowly, steadily, working them to conclusions with the occasional crack of violence, but more often resolved at a bench overlooking the Thames, or a quiet restaurant. They’re very different kinds of thrillers, but of the same consummate class.

Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz
Published: 2 February 2021
ISBN: 9780241402863
Imprint: Michael Joseph
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 464

Slough House by Mick Herron
Published: 4 February 2021
ISBN: 9781529378658
Imprint: John Murray Publishers Ltd
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 320

RRP: $32.99

Review: The Chase by Candice Fox

More than six hundred of the United States’ most dangerous prisoners break out from Pronghorn Correctional Facility in this turbocharged suspenser from Candice Fox — her most ambitious and byzantine novel yet. 

As some of the scariest humans on the planet flee into the Nevada desert following a bold escape plan actioned by persons unknown, death row supervisor Celine Osbourne makes it her mission to capture one specific fugitive: John Kradle. His crimes — the murderous rampage that massacred his family  — elicit traumatic memories from Osbourne’s childhood, and she is determined to see him returned behind bars; even if it means partnering with another inmate to access his particular skill set, and splitting from the official manhunt run by U.S. Marshal Trinity Parker, whose focus is a terrorist she is certain will strike again, and soon.

But Kradle is less interested in hiding from his pursuers and more concerned with finally unearthing the truth about the crime he was convicted of, and finally enacting vengeance.  Taking advantage of the pandemonium, he spends his first hours of freedom trailed by the serial killer who has befriended him, and who Kradle can’t shake; then gradually peels back the layers of deception that landed him in Pronghorn. 

“The Chase” is brilliantly cinematic, tailor-made for adaptation into a slick television mini-series. While Kradle and Osbourne are the protagonists, Fox splices interludes from various other players, including fugitives and bystanders, which orbit the primary plotline, and engender an epicness to the story. But despite the grandness of the tale, Fox’s distinct brand of wry humour still shines through; the dialogue is sharp, and the characters are characteristically quirky. This is trademark Fox, but using a wider canvas: a proper blockbuster. 

These are some of the most carefully-crafted, well-groomed pages Candice Fox has produced. Breathless and compelling to the end, “The Chase” is a strong contender for thriller of the year.

Published: 30 March 2021
ISBN: 9781760896799
Imprint: Bantam Australia
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 480

RRP: $32.99