Written by Roger Smith writing as James Rayburn — The South African crime novelist Roger Smith has written under a pseudonym before. In 2012 he wrote Vile Blood, a horror novel, under the name Max Wilde. In this latest book, Smith has again taken a step away from his intense and ultra-hardboiled South African noir to write a globetrotting thriller set in the shadowy world of espionage and off-the- books covert ops.
Kate Swift and her six-year-old daughter Suzie have been hiding out in a sleepy Vermont Town for the last two years after Kate burned her bridges with America’s Intelligence community. She blew the whistle on the extra-legal black ops team she had been part of when her Pakistani husband was killed in an American drone strike. Her revelations ended several careers and the once tight-knit team went there separate ways.
Harry Hook, no good in the field but a genius at strategising and spotting opportunities others would dismiss as too risky, took his life savings to Thailand and tried to wash away his memories in a sea of alcohol. Philip Danvers, now 77 and slowly succumbing to prostate cancer, has been reliving his glory days of the Cold War showing tourist groups around Berlin. Lucien Benway, the architect of Kate’s misery two years ago, and once the golden boy in the service, has been reduced to working as a consultant for pariah states, gunrunners and warlords.
Benway has never forgiven Kate for what he sees as her betrayal, and it is his thirst for revenge that drives the story. When Kate is forced to break from cover after thwarting a Columbine-style massacre at her daughter’s school, it is Benway that goes after her. While the US government has a warrant out for Kate’s arrest, it is Benway and his goon Morse that she really fears. Benway is a sadist and when he realises that Kate will have to reach out to her old contacts he hatches a plan to take them all out.
One of the pleasures of the book is the way Rayburn (Smith) is able to flesh out his four main protagonists in what is essentially a vey fast paced commercial action thriller. A case in point is the way he lays bare Fenway’s insecurities – his need to feel superior is revealed as he unnecessarily antagonises his old comrades.
What seems to be missing is the espionage angle. All of the protagonists may have been spies at one time, but when the story begins all of them have left that world. We catch glimpses here and there of the people they used to be, but apart from a little tradecraft from Hook and Danvers, this is a straight up action thriller. There’s nothing wrong with that, indeed, it’s a very good thriller, but is it wrong to wish for a little bit more from one of your favourite authors?
There are also nice cameos from a power hungry senator persuaded to do some CIA dirty work in exchange for the chair of a security committee, and a fame-obsessed journalist who allows his ambition to lead him into danger. Rayburn finds time for a little humour and satire as he drives the narrative towards a thrilling conclusion in Thailand. He has toned down the violence compared to his South African crime novels to produce a more mainstream thriller, but there is still more than a little blood and guts, and though there is a little redemption on offer, not everybody survives. Those that do may surprise you.
If you’re in the mood for some espionage fiction, take a look at the latest from a modern master, Alan Furst’s A Hero in France, and rediscover an undisputed masterpiece, Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File.
Quiller & Brown
CFL Rating: 4 Stars