Spooks v Terrorists

A Fatal Game by Nicholas Searle

I’m delighted to be today’s stop on the blog tour for Nicholas Searle’s latest novel, for there is not much I enjoy reading more than a spy story. A Fatal Game is Searle’s third novel; his first The Good Liar, a psychological thriller, has been filmed with Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen – a film to look forward to, although I’d prefer to read the book first. Anyway back to the new book – and it begins with a tragedy…

Abu Omar paused as he left the truck by the rear door, looked around, then replaced his baseball cap and continued on his way. The surveillance teams noted his darting eyes and the tenseness of his frame. Jake rushed back to the ops room. […]

Jake watched him on the screen, his boy now, more heavily invested than he had been. Abu Omar’s shoulders swayed with youthful arrogance. As he left one screen he appeared on the next. As he turned into the park opposite the railway station Jake could see his face, indifferent, glassy-eyed as ever. He was chewing gum slowly.

But Abu Omar goes into the toilets in the park unexpectedly. It really seems like he needed a pee, but when he then went into the station, somehow he’d managed to swap the rucksack. Sixty-three died. The official inquiry is hearing Jake’s evidence, he’s behind a screen. He tells how it was meant to be a reconnaissance run – but they were all fooled. Jake knows he’ll be hung out to dry as Abu Omar’s handler.

Cut to a group of four young men, Adnan and Bilal had grown up together, and went out to Turkey to fight together. They met two others out there, Abdullah and Rashid. Now back home, they are separately converging on a meeting place – each taking precautions to check if they’re being followed. They get in the van and are driven to a secret location where they find out from a man they call ‘the fake sheikh’ who always sits in the darkness, it’ll be their turn on a ‘holy mission’ soon.

Rashid is more than a terrorist though – he’s Jake’s informer. He tells Jake and his colleague Leila everything. Having been recruited by Jake, he insisted on answering only to him, even though Jake’s superiors would prefer him gone from the scene. They don’t want another tragedy. So begins the complex cat and mouse game between the spooks and the unknowing terrorists, and this time there’s more than Jake’s reputation at stake. How far should Jake trust Rashid?

Searle’s story takes some familiar elements but ups the stakes and keeps it serious in tone. In Mick Herron’s first Slough House novel, Slow Horses, River Cartwright gets demoted when an anti-terrorism exercise in a mainline station goes wrong – but no-one dies in Slow Horses. The BBC’s recent drama, Informer, followed the story of a young second-generation Pakistani coerced into becoming an informant for Paddy Considine’s ambiguous counter-terrorism officer. Rashid, having been to war, is a league up from Informer’s sharply-dressed Raza, but Jake is more like Considine’s character. However, such is the power of television, that it was Richard Madden as The Bodyguard that I pictured as Jake in my mind!

Searle breaks things up slightly with Mr and Mrs Masoud, whose son and granddaughter perished in the station; they attend the inquiry every day. They are an interesting couple, whose importance will become clear later on. Some of the dialogue at the inquiry felt a bit forced (acronym alert – a new one on me: CHIS – ‘covert human intelligence source’), and chief spook was correspondingly slimy, however, this is Jake and Rashid’s novel, and they were well-drawn, complex characters, as were the others in the terrorist cell as far as they took the limelight now and then.

At just under 250 pages, A Fatal Game is a supremely tense read. Going back and forth between the inquiry after the initial tragedy and the new operation, there was always a sickening feeling that it could all happen again, which built up the tension to sky-high levels, making it very clear that this is not a game at all.

Source: Review copy – thank you.    Nicholas Searle, A Fatal Game (Penguin Viking, 2019) Hardback, 247 pages.

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2 thoughts on “Spooks v Terrorists

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Brevity in a novel is a good thing in my book. I will definitely explore Searle’s first two novels – he’s a former civil servant, so I expect some more interesting insights – and I have The Good Liar on my shelves already.

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