Written by Matt Johnson — If you like your crime fiction to be full of thrills and conspiracies, with more than a dash of authentic descriptions of weapons, raids and SAS-type tactics, then this series by Matt Johnson should be destined for your reading pile. The author is a retired soldier and police officer, much like his hero Robert Finlay, and he crams his stories with credible little details.
This is the second book in the series, and we recommend that you start with the first Wicked Game, as it provides quite a bit of background. In the first book, former SAS officer Finlay was being targeted, together with other ex-military colleagues, by someone plotting a sinister revenge. The culprits were caught and the danger seems over, but Finlay’s career in Royalty Protection has been compromised. So he is re-assigned to a people trafficking investigation unit in CID. However, MI5 is not above using him as an unwitting tool to discover the real author behind a supposedly fictionalised tell-all military memoir.
This apparently harmless side-mission soon turns dangerous, which is what seems to happen with any case Finlay touches. And, inevitably, there are links between the two cases he is working on. The publisher of the book is a Romanian business empire which seems to be a shell for a company that really traffics drugs, weapons and women. But the real danger lies with a covert secret service operation uncovered by Toni Fellowes, the MI5 agent who is trying to co-opt Finlay. She suspects that the danger to Finlay and his family is not yet over, and that their safe house may not be as safe as they had hoped.
If the first book excelled in depictions of bombings and assassinations, this second book focuses more on investigative methods – to which Finlay is rather endearingly introduced. He has no experience of detective work and concludes that it relies mostly on wearing out the shoe leather. The evil-doers are also less obvious to pinpoint in this book: they are outwardly respectable, even highly personable people, who nevertheless are capable of great evil, driven more by greed and hunger for power rather than obsessive revenge.
Fear not, there are still plenty of exciting rescue operations which require specialist knowledge, which will be a delight for anyone interested in weapons and military terminology. The short chapters and terse sentences propel the action forward, while the poignant descriptions of the inhuman conditions in which the sex workers are kept add the personal touch which prevents the story from becoming too technical. The author is also developing a nice line in snappy dialogues between Finlay and MI5’s Toni, Toni and her superiors, and Finlay and his new partner Nina Brasov. Finlay is not your usual loner action hero – he is a family man, warm-hearted and sensitive, still haunted by PTSD. He is by no means perfect, often jumping too hastily to conclusions.
The book is not perfect either. There are a few far-fetched coincidences upon which the plot hinges, and some of the technical descriptions are too lengthy. The background of the criminal empire of the Cristea family is not fully plausible either and gives in to clichés about East European mafia-type organisations. You might also grow sceptical that the state would go to such lengths to protect some of its nastier secrets from spilling out, when it appears that newspapers are able to reveal such exclusives nearly every season. Perhaps this was more of a concern in 2001, when the action occurs.
In spite of these issues, Deadly Game combines spy thriller and police procedural extremely well and should certainly be destined for the shelves of anyone into their conspiracy thrillers.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars