Wicked Game by Matt Johnson

Wicked GameWicked Game is an adrenalin rush of a novel that launches Matt Johnson into the thriller genre with an attention grabbing bang. Robert Finlay was responsible for planning and logistics in Operation Nimrod, the famous SAS mission to free the Libyan Embassy in London from gunmen who had taken 26 hostages inside the building. He has since moved into the police force and with a family keen to have more of his time he moved from Royalty Protection to the Met. He seems to have found the perfect balance, until his past comes back to haunt him in horrifying fashion.

The novel is written in both the first and third person, alternating between Finlay giving an account of his view of events and traditional story telling when Finlay isn’t directly involved. Although at times it is a little bit clunky the narrative is utterly absorbing. I do most of my reading on my commute and from the moment I opened Wicked Game everything around me melted away and I found myself transported onto the streets of London, oblivious of the progress or otherwise of my bus.

I remember the Libyan Embassy siege and the threat of the IRA from my childhood and at the moment we are increasingly aware of new terrorist threats on our streets, so to get an insider’s perspective within the context of a pulsating thriller is a fascinating insight. The author himself is a retired soldier and Police Inspector with first hand experience of terrorist attacks on London. He was first on the scene of the 1982 Regent’s Park bombing, provided an escort to an ambulance carrying his friend PC Yvonne Fletcher from the Libyan Embassy siege and was present at the 1992 Baltic Exchange bombing. He knows what he is talking about.

He has also suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and it was as part of his efforts to deal with his past that the idea of writing a novel first came to be discussed. There is a sense in the book of how the past can never fully be left behind for people who have lived under the real threat of death and Matt also writes about PTSD on his own website in a way that helps build understanding of the stresses that we put people under in our armed services and police forces.

The story itself is a complex web that the police, security services and Finlay himself are all trying to untangle. It is never clear who can be trusted and what agendas they are trying to move forward, except for Finlay whose fight for survival we follow most intimately through his own thoughts. The tension takes hold early on and never lets up as the danger gets closer to home and Finlay realises that only he can secure his family’s safety as he is forced to face his past up close and personal.

Wicked Game comes to us straight from someone who has experienced life at the sharp end of our security services and that authenticity comes across in a novel that feels utterly believable. With Deadly Game already in draft form we look set for an exciting new series in the thriller genre.

Wicked Games Blog tour

Quicksand by Steve Toltz

QuicksandQuicksand is a fast paced novel that bombards the reader with a series of disastrous life events for its central character and a relentless flow of consciousness that is at turns enlightening and frivolous. It is at times hilarious and at others deeply thought provoking but in the end it is also exhausting and takes an effort of will to see through.

Aldo Benjamin is beset by failure and pain, both physical and mental, which may be the result of his ongoing struggle with an all-powerful deity testing him as a Job through eternal destruction, or might be linked to his own self-absorption. He copes with his problems by surrounding himself with people who can help him through them, which is one reason why school friend Liam continues to receive calls from his police colleagues to intervene in Aldo’s misdemeanours.

Liam is a frustrated author and sees Aldo’s extraordinary bad luck as the answer to his writer’s block. He sets out to write a novel that will inspire others through the schadenfreude of reading about his friend’s misadventures. Aldo has a string of failed businesses behind him and a defining failed relationship. He feels that life is an act of balancing on the line between his two greatest fears, prison and hospital, but he falls into both these hells with devastating effect.

He decides to finally wrestle his demons on a rocky outcrop, battered by the rain, wind, waves and sun as he seeks to meet his tormentor God so that they can “slit each other’s throats”. It is not an easy ride. For all of Aldo’s flaws he has suffered incredible abuse, some of which has been graphically described, and this battered, crippled man has every reason to shout out against life. There is no easy answer that can sweep away everything that has happened to him and there is no clean resolution for the reader, no happy ever after.

In the end Quicksand raises questions about life. If it is all just meaningless then what is the point of suffering through it and yet if there is some grand plan why does it involve all of this pain? All of us, even if we live comfortable lives, can empathise with the search for meaning and Aldo’s story may lead us to examine our own lives, but ultimately it can only set us off on that journey and we may never see it resolve.