The Shot by Sarah Sultoon

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The Shot by Sarah Sultoon front cover

Award winning CNN journalist Sarah Sultoon made her name reporting from trouble spots all around the world. For her first crime novel, The Source – winner of the inaugural CFL Award for best debut – she stuck close to home, with a story involving a journalist like herself who winds up investigating people trafficking and institutional sex abuse in the UK.

For The Shot, Sultoon sets her horizons much wider, to Iraq, Afghanistan and the Sudan in the opening year of the 21st century. Three places of extreme conflict, where journalists risk their lives for the perfect image; for the defining soundbite that could make their career. Cynical? Maybe, but that’s what drives Samira, known as Sami, perpetually working the night shift at the London base of a major news network.

Sami is blisteringly ambitious. She wants to be in the thick of the news, not sitting on the sidelines. And she is an Arab speaker so she is certain that her time will eventually come. And come it does, after the network’s star cameraman Kris is shot in the head during an ambush in Baghdad, Sami and her co-worker and friend Di are suddenly at the centre of the action back at home base. It’s a fleeting glimpse of what Sami longs to do – and when her chance finally comes along she unflinchingly grabs it with both hands.

It’s Christmas, and by being in the right place at the right time Sami finds herself on a plane to Afghanistan, with a freshly ‘recovered’ Kris at her side. Their assignment is to film the troops enjoying their festive dinner in a war zone. However, the ever-ambitious Sami has other ideas and through her finagling the pair manage to wangle a visit to a field hospital, where they meet the tragic and photogenic Habiba.

They interview her and hear a horrific story. Married at 14, Habibi is now 18 and five months pregnant and has deliberately set fire to herself in the hope of escaping her terrible existence under the Taliban – the makeshift ward is filled with women who have done the same thing. She just wants to die, and the despair in her eyes cuts straight to Sami’s very soul. All she can do is tell Habibi’s story, make others share the young woman’s pain. Kris and Sami are hustled away. They know they have a great story, but they also have a plane to catch. The next time we hear of Habibi, she is dead.

The Afghanistan trip is the first of several assignments for the new team – Kris with his unerring eye for the perfect image and Sami’s unflinching sense of a heartbreaking human interest story making them a force to be reckoned with. But both have their demons, and it is those hidden depths that Sultoon plumbs to such harrowing effect.

Her descriptions of working in disaster zones ring true, and are so realistic that you can almost feel the grit and sand on the ever-more quickly turning pages. Characters are well rounded and multi-layered and there’s an air of authenticity about them and the situations they fall into. Sami is something of a conundrum and difficult to like, while Aussie Kris, his easygoing veneer hiding so much, is probably the more interesting of the two.

This is a thriller that focuses on crimes against humanity on an epic scale, but the minutiae running through the book is just as vital to the narrative flow. The Shot is a much denser read than The Source, and while the behind the scenes glimpses are still there, Sultoon has conjured up a darkness that tends to pull on the brakes a bit, making the reader lose concentration as they look away and ponder what they’ve just read. If you like a crime novel that forces you to stop and think, you’ve found it.

Another female reporter features in 1979, the start of a new series by Val McDermid.

Orenda Books

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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