The Watchman

watchman200Written by Adrian Magson — This is the start of a new thriller series by prolific English author Adrian Magson. There are two types of close protection personnel, according to the author – the highly visible gorillas who deter random attacks, and the ones in the shadows who are constantly observing and reacting, always alert and out of sight. Marc Portman is the latter type – a freelance shadow – and most of the story is told through his eyes, in first person.

The start of the novel, when Portman gets involved in thwarting a kidnapping attempt in Colombia, contains some of the most explosive opening chapters I have read in a long time. Give this man a Bond film script to play with! It also tells us a lot about the main character. He’s a consummate professional, careful, taciturn, beholden to no man or government, yet fundamentally a good guy. He’s intervened even though preventing the kidnapping is nothing to do with him.

After an intriguing start, we then plunge into a third person narrative, and into the world of sub-committee meetings and politicking of secret intelligence in London. Tom Vale is nearing retirement after an illustrious career in the field. He is working as a consultant for MI6, so no longer quite part of the in-crowd. That’s the domain of the younger Moresby, who is more focused on bureaucracy and career advancement to have time for scruples. The author casts a sardonic eye on middle management types in the spooks business, comparing them with corporate drones. Following a hostage situation in Somalia, Moresby is eager to send in an agent to negotiate with a notorious middleman and criminal. Vale thinks the situation is too risky but is not taken seriously.

When the narratives of Portman and Moresby meet, matters are explained a little too explicitly and exhaustively. That is my one main criticism of this otherwise well-paced and taut novel.

Vale wants to use Portman as an unofficial additional security blanket. He cannot offer him any ground support, however, so the mission is clear. Portman must protect the assets, but after that he’s on his own. At once, we suspect that things are not going to go according to plan. Sure enough, no sooner do the negotiators land in Kenya than they are whisked across the border to Somalia, without mobile phones or any other means of getting in touch with home base. Luckily, Portman is already in place a short distance away from their meeting place, a derelict villa in Kamboni, on the Somali coast.

The rest of the novel takes place mostly in this limited location, proving that you don’t need to be chasing your characters from one glamorous or sinister location to the next to ratchet up the tension. Take a few square miles of bushland, a dozen modern day pirates with links to Al-Qaeda, one resourceful lone operator and a skilled author, and you have a nail-biting story. This is further enhanced by the short chapters, nearly always with a cliffhanger forcing you to read on.

Magson is undoubtedly a clever writer, who knows how to play with his readers’ emotions. Suspense and atmosphere come naturally for him, and I suspect the only reason he is not quite as well known as he deserves is that he is so very versatile. Equally good at spy thrillers, police procedurals and historical crime fiction set in 1960s France, it is very difficult to slap a label on him. For this particular reader, however, that makes him all the more exciting.

We interviewed Adrian Magson in October 2012. You can read it here. The book is released 30 January.

Severn House
Print
£18.75

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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