Author Simon Conway set to triumph with ‘The Stranger’

Scottish author Simon Conway’s fifth novel looks poised to position him as one of the best authors working in the thriller genre today c

Full confession: I’d heard of Simon Conway but this is the first novel of his that I have read. Frankly, after this, my ignorance shames me and, I mean this sincerely, this piece should propel Conway into the very first rank of thriller writer’s working today. 

A world of smoke and mirrors

The Stranger centres on Jude Lyon, an SIS officer, dispatched by his duplicitous Head of Service, Queen Bee, to track down a legendary terrorist who was taken to Syria back when we didn’t do that sort of thing. Honest. 

But this terrorist is not all that he seems. And neither is anyone else in this novel.

As well as Lyon, a lead character with a love life complicated enough to make George Smiley blush, and Queen Bee, the smoke and mirrors head of the security services, the novel is populated with a fascinating cacophony of characters, including a squirming semi-alcoholic former Foreign Secretary, a Scottish journalist with a professional and personal interest in Lyon and a Russian diplomat and his wife who may or may not be luring Jude towards the rocks of disaster. 

Conway’s plots are onion layered: peeling back one skin at a time. He manages that neat trick so often missing in this type of novel which makes plot reveals seem inevitable and surprising rather outlandish or tediously predictable. 

His storytelling remind me of the best of Charles Cumming or Jeremy Duns – engaging, jigsaw tight, satisfying at the end but with potential for expansion in a future work. 

Descriptive passages Martin Amis would be proud of

He writes well too. “Jude’s immigrant provenance is equally exotic and fragmentary, shot through with competing veins of conformity and criminality, from a cigar-chomping bank robber for a grandfather to a general given to eccentricity and dark moods for a father,” is the sort of descriptive passage that Martin Amis at his most interesting would have been proud of. 

And, while it is true, Conway’s novel doesn’t – of necessity – have the same laugh out loud quality of some of Mick Herron’s novels, “Jonno Butcher, one of Cathy’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of meat-faced nephews,” is a description of which even the Slough House author would be proud.

I will be surprised if it emerges that Conway is not a fan of Le Carré. In fact, I’m not sure if it’s an affectionate nod to Le Carré, or merely to do with the abundance of such names in the region, but all the characters from the Caucuses we encounter in the book have names from Le Carré’s novels, especially ‘Our Game’.

Perhaps the most impressive area is that of the terrorists. He makes them well-rounded, whole characters who you don’t mind spending time with. Terrifying, yes, but nuanced and engaging too.

A crash, bang, wallop conclusion done with joie de vivre 

The ending of The Stranger may be slightly crash, bang, wallop for some people’s tastes but even this is done with enjoyable joie de vivre and edge of the seat inducing tension as well as some final plot twists which make me hope that this is not a standalone novel but the first in a series.

Overall, a triumph of a novel that makes me long for the opportunity to encounter Jude Lyon and his world again. 

Just need to go back and read Simon Conway’s back catalogue now. Whole-heartedly recommended.

Agent Running Through Fields of Wheat?

“You know what Trump is?’

‘Tell me.’

‘He’s Putin’s shithouse cleaner.’

Which is as good a place as any to begin with John Le Carrè’s latest work, Agent Running in the Field. Rumoured to have angered his former employers, (according to one very put out spook at the Cliveden Literary Festival at least)

Mr Le Carrè’s somewhat classy retort in The Times was enough to generate some publicity for what is certainly a lower key release than 2018’s Legacy of Spies (which even got a session at the London’s Royal Festival Hall beamed to cinemas over the UK).

This was supposed to be his Brexit rant – his anti-Trump, reactionary wail of despair at UK national suicide, the world gone mad, manipulated by the kleptocratic, Tsarist spook-in-chief in Moscow. This was supposed to be his deconstruction of the British state and it’s Cambridge Analytica-altered, Putin fiddled with, Big Red Bus of Deceitful Propaganda opus. Hell, even the title sounds like a riff on our former Prime Minister’s childhood agricultural misdemeanours. And, at least in the character of Ed, the novel does reflect those emotions.

“It is my considered opinion that for Britain and Europe, and for liberal democracy across the entire world as a whole, Britain’s departure from the European Union in the time of Donald Trump, and Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the Us is heading straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterfuck bar none.”

This, in fairness, is hardly an equivocal position. But, nor is it a radical stance so far out with the opinions of many of the people watching Brexit unfold and, in comparison to – say 2003’s Absolute Friends – this is a quiet and measured response.

And, really, that is my take away from the novel. It is a small story in a way that the absolute first rate Le Carrè pieces aren’t. The character of Ed is a graceless and, as a narrator in one of his novels might say, seems to have elevated gracelessness to an art form. Nat is an unreliable narrator, the seemingly happy marriage undermined by what everyone else sees in him apparently, although the influence of this on the plot seems slim.

Overall, it’s always better to read Le Carrè than others. There are the usual damning characterisations, the usual pithy descriptions and he does physical nuance just about better than anyone but, here, the plotting lacks surprises and the ending fails to pack the sort of punch that even a relatively minor novel of his latter period, Our Kind of Traitor or A Most Wanted Man for example, manage to produceAgent Running.

‘Nobody Move’ by Philip Elliott

If you like… (takes deep breath) Heat, Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, Pulp Fiction, The Godfather, Baby DriverNo Country for Old Men, Get Shorty, Kill Bill Vols 1 & 2, The Getaway, Silence of the Lambs, Out of Sight and Point Break, then this may just be the book for you.

Nobody Move by Toronto-based debutant Philip Elliott is a love letter to the crime thriller movies of the 90s and is packed with enough sleazy motels, 80s punk rock and characters making questionable life choices to make you want to ask, “Whose chopper iz dis?’

Philip Elliott author photo

Philip Elliott, debutant author of crime thriller, Nobody Move, out in September 2019

Clearly, the man knows his Tarantino, his Elmore Leonard and his Jim Thomson.

However, although this may sound like pastiche, it is so cleverly done, the novel ripping along in 315 pages, and Elliott managing to make you enjoy spending time with these monstrous characters, that you don’t feel oppressed by the references. The fact that the characters are self referentially referring to them acting like they’re in a movie, only adds to the fun.

Nobody Move opens with the character of Eddie, a small time hoodlum beginning to tire of the life, making a catastrophic mistake which only escalates as variously his pretentious, restaurant owning mobster boss, Saul Benedict, and his men (and Eddie’s ex-partners), Floyd and Sawyer, all enter the fray hunting the want-away Eddie. Fate twists further as the beautiful Dakota, a Native American woman fresh in the City of Angels searching for her missing friend and psychotic, Texan assassin Rufus, seeking vengeance for his murdered brother, takes up his beloved daggers one final time and begins the long drive to L.A. Meanwhile, put-upon vegetarian LAPD detective Alison Lockley’s hunts for the killers becomes increasingly urgent as the bodies pile up.

The novel, published by small press Into the Void, has rather too many uses of “the N word” for my liking and appears to have an unfortunate relationship to violence against women – but persevere for all is not what it seems.

This is to be the first of a series of novels, known as the Angel City series. I’m looking forward to reading the next instalment.

Nobody Move (Angel City #1) is out from Into the Void press on September 10th.

ISBN: 978-1-7753813-5-8