If your idea of a Cold War thriller is a ‘white saviour’ hero with conservative values rescuing the world from the Soviet menace, think again: American Spy (Dialogue Books, £14.99), Lauren Wilkinson’s intelligent and pacey debut, set against the background of a real coup d’etat, injects new life into this tired formula. It’s 1987, and FBI agent Marie Mitchell, her career stalled by racism and sexism, is recruited by the CIA as the bait in a honeytrap. The target is Burkina Faso’s president Thomas Sankara, and the aim is to destabilise his fledgling government, whose Marxist leanings run counter to American interests. Despite misgivings, Mitchell accepts the job, but, once in West Africa and having become emotionally involved with her subject, she becomes increasingly ambivalent about what she is doing and why. Written as a record for her sons after an attempt on her life five years later, this is a complex, powerful story of divided loyalties, double consciousness and moral ambiguity.
Spy novels by women tend to be few and far between, so it’s an unexpected pleasure when two come along at once. Charlotte Philby is the granddaughter of double agent Kim Philby and having a spy in the family may be the reason why her first novel, The Most Difficult Thing (The Borough Press, £12.99), is a blend of espionage and domestic suspense. Anna is besotted with secretive Harry, whose unnamed paymasters are very interested in the unscrupulous business dealings of their mutual friend David’s billionaire father. In order to obtain inside information, Harry encourages Anna into David’s arms, and marriage and children follow. Still burdened by guilt from her childhood, and lacking a support network, Anna becomes increasingly bewildered. Everyone has an agenda in this intriguing exploration of deceit and duplicity, as Philby rachets up the paranoia to Highsmithian levels.
In the hands of a lesser writer, the premise of The Chain (Orion, £12.99) would be preposterous, but Adrian McKinty has invested his conceit of a kidnapping pyramid scheme with an appalling plausibility. The technique of the chain letter is employed: in order for your child to be freed, you must not only pay a ransom but also kidnap somebody else’s kid in order to continue the sequence, and the consequences for anyone who refuses to cooperate are brutal. It is, as one of its architects says, ‘The goddamn Uber of kidnapping with the clients doing most of the work themselves’. When 13-year-old Kylie is snatched from a bus stop near her home in Massachusetts, mother Rachel is plunged into a nightmare as she is forced to do the unthinkable in order to save her daughter. Told in a spare, punchy style, this is a blazing, full-tilt thriller that entirely justifies the hype. Read, and pass it on.
Alex Marwood’s fourth novel, The Poison Garden (Sphere, £12.99, begins with the Jonestown-style massacre of Doomsday cultists who live off-grid in the foothills of Snowdonia. Only twenty-year-old Romy and a few of the children, including her two half-siblings – the leader cherry-picks the most attractive women as sexual partners – have survived. The action flips between past and present as Romy struggles to understand the ‘Dead’ of the outside world and searches for the sister of her – literally dead – mother. Herself the product of a bizarre Christian sect, Aunt Sarah, who provides a parallel narrative, is coming to terms with the strange nephew and niece that social services have foisted upon her. Intelligently assimilated research, a slow build with a growing sense of unease and a chillingly believable plotline add up to the best sort of dark psychological thriller.
Although Guillaume Musso has topped the book charts in his native France for some years, The Reunion (translated by Frank Wynne, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £14.99) is the first of his novels to be published in the UK. In 1992, Vinca Rockwell, an American student at an elite boarding school on the Cote d’Azur, ran away with her philosophy tutor, Alexis Clement, and the pair were never seen again. That, at least, is the official version. Three of her friends know this wasn’t what happened and when, 25 years later, they attend a reunion and discover that the gym is scheduled for demolition, they realise there is trouble ahead… There’s an almost cartoonish amount of melodrama as the complicated relationships, tragic misunderstandings, dead bodies and fresh culprits pile up, but it’s a fun read, spiced up with plenty of pop-cultural references.
Finally, a welcome reissue of a French classic from another author who is little known in the Anglophone world. First published in 1966, The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun by Sebastien Japrisot (translated by Helen Weaver, Gallic, £8.99) is the fever-dream tale of beautiful Dany, who decides, on a whim, to take her boss’s American Thunderbird convertible for a joy-ride. She heads south from Paris on a bright summer morning, but things get disconcerting when people she’s never met, in places she’s never been before, swear that they recognise both her and the distinctive vehicle from the previous day… Far-fetched but utterly captivating, this is a perfect diversion for a sunny afternoon.
© Laura Wilson, 2019