The man they couldn’t kill…

Nomad by James Swallow

Nomad by James Swallow

Swallow’s  espionage  thriller comes blazoned with a sticker saying ‘For  fans of I am Pilgrim‘ – a  900+ page, but apparently brilliant, book  I’ve yet to read.    The veteran author Wilbur Smith says it’s ‘Unputdownable’  and it has an intriguing cover blending Arabic and circuit boards.   It got me thinking of Homeland and Spooks and  once I started reading, it was  indeed hard to stop.

The book begins with an  atrocity that grabs the attention. A teenage boy walks into a Barcelona police station, obviously unwell and collapses.  Police officers and a paramedic who was there go to his attention  and when the  paramedic cuts open his shirt they  gasp.  The boy had tried to say something in Arabic, and Pasco has tapped it into a translating device:

A soft digital ping brought his attention back to the electronic gadget in his hands. Pasco had forgotten he was holding it in his thick fingers. The device offered a translation of the word he had given, and his blood ran cold.
Shahiden (Arabic, noun), it read. Martyr.
Noya began to speak. ‘I think there’s something…’
The wet gasp the boy gave was the last thing Pasco Abello heard.

We move to the docks at Dunkirk. Marc Dane is part of a covert operations team for MI6, codenamed Nomad. Marc is ex Fleet Air Arm, now one of the ‘blokes in the van’ in the seven strong team. He had turned down the opportunity to be one of the ‘blokes with the guns’ as Rix calls the Field Officers. Sam, Samantha, is one of the strike team; she and Marc have been seeing each other but now it’s time:

‘Job on.’ she said. ‘Job off. Don’t mix them up.’

The Nomad team is searching for a powerful stolen device. Sam and the others board and search the suspect ship; Marc and the others in the van will monitor them, using tiny drones and other high-tech gear. It’s all going to plan, but something feels wrong. They reach the hold to find some kids appearing to be living there. ‘Shahiden’ says one as they press a trigger. Marc’s only thought is for Sam and that is what saves his life. She had been on deck when the explosion happened, so he rushes towards the ship to try and rescue her. A missile hits the van. Sam is also dead. Marc manages to evade the sniper stationed to mop up survivors and heads for the car where he finds and deals with another assailant waiting for him. They’d been completely set up.

Sam had thought there was a  bad apple at MI6, leaking info to  the Combine –  arms dealers supplying the Al Sayf terrorists.   Who can Marc trust?  He runs, but manages to get back to England where he becomes a ‘walk-in’ at  MI6 – and no sooner than he’s welcomed home, he finds himself accused.  Marc has to escape.

I won’t explain how Marc gets out of MI6, and  goes on the run,  only ever  perhaps half a step ahead of his pursuers.  Naturally, Marc is not your normal techy support guy,  he’s super-fit too and  given the number of times he’ll have to fight for his life in this novel,  he has the constitution of an ox.  This is all quite unlikely, but highly enjoyable and better done  than some other thrillers I’ve read with totally indestructible heroes, (e.g. Scott Mariani’s Ben Hope – see here).

What set  this  thriller above many others was the  way it  worked like one of  Spook‘s more action-oriented episodes. This,  combined with a Homeland-style  terrorist threat that was  believable, (the use of the children martyrs was particularly nasty), kept me turning the pages.  Swallow, a veteran scriptwriter, knows how to hook his audience. Thrillers with a lone wolf searching out a traitor in the heart of MI6  are  great, but…

Swallow goes  on to over-complicate it. He introduces some help for Marc in the form of billionaire  Ekko Solomon,  an orphan from Africa, who has built up an organisation called Rubicon that has a secret side dedicated to  supporting justice  around the world.  Why did we need these vigilantes for whom money is no object?   Admittedly, Marc’s life is saved several times by  Rubicon operative Lucy Keyes.  Marc  doesn’t hesitate to accept  Solomon’s offer  –  and was then able to chase the bad guys from Moscow to Dubai and all points in between.  He is  now set up for the sequel – Exile – and there’s your reason.

Swallow’s writing lacks the humour and subtlety   of other spy writers like  Mick Herron (whose latest,  reviewed here, also begins with a  bomb in a crowd).  However,  Nomad  has more traditional action thriller elements and less  politics, moving at breakneck pace through its 487 pages.  If you like a fast-moving action thriller,  then  Nomad ticks all the boxes.   (8/10)

Source: Publisher – thank you.

James Swallow, Nomad (Rubicon 1),  Zaffre 2016, paperback, 487 pages.

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