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Written by Mark Dawson — Sleepers is the 13th novel in the wildly popular John Milton thriller series, penned by a wildly successful author who turned his back on traditional publishing a handful of years ago and became an icon in world of self-publishing. Are his novels hype or the real deal?

Southwold, England, is a quiet seaside town in Suffolk, a tourist spot. And the home of Russian defector, Pyotr Ilyich Aleksandrov, codenamed Cherry. He and his recently retired MI6 handler Leonard Geggel meet in a pub. Geggel wonders what the hell is going on, he left MI6 some time ago and the pair haven’t seen each other in a while.

Aleksandrov has a very tempting offer for Geggel – the blueprints to a new and top secret jet fighter developed by the Russians obtained by his daughter. She wants to escape the Mother Country and these are her bargaining chips. The trouble is, the Russian authorities know the plans have been taken and by whom. She’s gone to ground, nobody knows where.

Unfortunately for the pair Aleksandrov is being monitored, seemingly by a husband and wife on holiday but who are actually Russian sleepers – undercover agents. They see Geggel arrive to meet Aleksandrov, but cannot hear the details. Aleksandrov and Geggel are interrogated separately. The agents learn Aleksandrov intended to provide the British secret service with the fighter blueprints, but not where his daughter is hiding. The operatives kill the pair in a messy fashion.

John Milton is an undercover operative for Group Fifteen, part of the UK’s secret services. When Aleksandrov and Geggel’s bodies are found Milton and his colleague Michael Pope rush to Southwold. It seems the method of the murders is designed to send a message, from the Russians themselves.

Meanwhile, over in Moscow Deputy Director Nikolai Primakov attends a meeting with the president, a man to be afraid of, who seemingly can stare into a person’s soul and learn their secrets. Primakov is nervous and has reason to be. He’s been having an illicit affair with a younger woman. Primakov manages to steer his way through the meeting in which they discuss Aleksandrov’s murder in Southwold. But Primakov doesn’t tell the president the truth, the real reason for Aleksandrov’s murder, which was to help his mistress.

Back in the UK, Vincent Beck is a deep cover Russian operative. He has been managing agents for a decade. His most recent operation was Aleksandrov’s murder in Southwold. When he receives a message that his cover has been blown he runs. It appears there’s a British mole inside Directorate S, feeding information on Russian activities. Unfortunately for Beck he is being tracked by Group Fifteen in a complex operation. Eventually Beck reaches a location he believes is safe, but it isn’t. Because Group Fifteen send in Milton…

Sleepers is set one week before the novel The Cleaner, Milton’s first appearance where Dawson introduced the protagonist to his now adoring fan base. Milton is a barely functioning alcoholic, with fresh memories of a recent murder he was ordered to undertake for the shadowy spy branch he works for. In fact, he’s haunted by the many deaths he’s perpetrated. Milton finally has enough and tries to step away from Group Fifteen. In all Dawson has published well over 20 books across several series of which Milton is arguably the highest profile.

Overall this is very decent spy thriller with multiple threads and viewpoints, which run separately until the author draws them together at the conclusion. It is the many threads which detract slightly from the story. The viewpoints, though well signposted, do jump around. The effect is to draw attention away from the central character, John Milton, which is a shame because he’s a very interesting construct. A highly dangerous man, but a mess; hungover and suffering.

On the upside the character cast is strong and well-drawn. There’s plenty of tension and interest created. Plus the back story is pretty topical, given the current issues between Russia and the UK after the novichok poisonings… and the author even lives in Salisbury. Dawson maintains the reader’s interest throughout and the pages turning. It is easy to see why he has found such a big readership. He deserves it.

We’ve interviewed Mark Dawson here. Other espionage thrillers worth a read are Firefly, London Rules and Need to Know.


CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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