A Thriller Reading Round-Up...

It’s been a busy month. I’m in the final stages of production for my new thriller, Powder Burn, and I’ve been reading quite a bit of non-fiction as research for a new Janac’s Games short story called The Sniper. It’ll be the next book after Powder Burn, and the first of several about Janac’s time in Vietnam. The idea is to track how he made it through the war, and developed contacts in that part of the world to build his drug empire. I thought I’d call them the Origins books to separate them from the main novels.

So, I’ve been reading various accounts of the Vietnam War, and remembering the nature of that horrific conflict. Long before there were suicide bombers in Iraq, there were sappers in Vietnam. I grew up in a world saturated with Second World War stories and movies, and I can still remember reading a newspaper headline announcing that American casualties had reached 50,000 in Vietnam. I was very young and I didn’t even know that there had been a war going on - how could that be possible? Wars were something that happened in the distant past, not now, and certainly not with America involved.

I remember it so vividly for two reasons; firstly it was a massive wake-up call to a child - I was new to this world and I needed to pay attention. I’ve been a huge follower of current affairs ever since. And secondly, as I learned more and more about Vietnam I began to slide from a belief in a black and white world of good and evil to one filled with shades of grey. Michael Herr’s book Dispatches was central to that coming of age. I still live in that world today, as anyone who has read the Janac’s Games books will know. It feels appropriate to be returning to the Vietnam War to tell more of his story.

All of which is a long way of saying that I won’t be reviewing the non-fiction. I had a go at one in the last blog round up, but I think I’d rather stick to reviewing what I know about - thrillers. And last month I read a couple of highly contrasting, but linked, books.

I first became aware of Barry Eisler after the controversy surrounding his decision to turn down a serious amount of money from a traditional publisher, in favour of bringing the books out himself. Subsequently, he accepted a deal with one of Amazon’s publishing imprints, and hasn’t looked back. Meanwhile, I became a fan of his blog; his writing on book marketing, the publishing industry and politics is always engaging, entertaining and usually right on the money.

I’m not sure why it has taken me this long to try one of his thrillers – I think it was the lack of availability as a reasonably priced e-book, something that Eisler is planning to fix. But having finally got to it, I’m happy to report that Eisler deserved every penny of whatever money Amazon threw at him – The Detachment is an excellent book by a man as fascinated with the shades of grey as I am.

Eisler has been writing about the assassin John Rain for a while, and this is the latest of those books. I guess it’s not an ideal place to start as I came into it with none of Rain’s backstory – but it didn’t matter. The book works perfectly well as a stand-alone thriller, while the writer still encouraged me to go back and read the earlier ones by making some adroit references to Rain’s previous adventures.

Barry Eisler’s bio says he worked for the CIA in a covert position, and it shows. Or, at least it shows as far as I – a civilian – can tell. The book has an incredibly authentic feel, that’s the first thing. The second is that it rips along at pace, with a rock solid and all-to believable underlying conspiracy at the centre of the plot. John Rain, the conflicted killer is a terrific central protagonist, and the other characters that make up The Detachment are all well drawn and keep you guessing. My pulse was racing in the final set-piece shoot up – only the denouement of Argo has matched that recently. I hope we see more of Rain, and the other characters in The Detachment, but I will most certainly be reading more Eisler either way – ‘nuff said about this one. Five stars.

Ironically, John Locke also came to my attention as a result of an ebook publishing controversy – he was one of the first really successful independents. He wrote a book called How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5Months! and I have a copy - I know, I know, sucker. I even read it, and I thought there was one interesting marketing idea and I went so far as to try it. It didn’t work. It turns out the book was probably b******s. Allegedly, Locke was successful because he had the cash from his other businesses to pay for 300 book reviews on Amazon, enough to get him off the launch pad.

I didn’t want to like this book, and to start with I didn’t – particularly coming to it off the back of the hyper-real Eisler book. The central character Donnie Creed is an assassin just like John Rain, but that’s where the comparison ends - there is nothing real about him. He has himself tortured to build up his resistance to pain, sleeps in other people’s attics to build up his skills at undetected intrusion, and otherwise lives in a prison cell so he’s used to it when he inevitably goes to jail. Right. Of course he does.

And then, with the help of a Goodreads friend, I got it. It’s not meant to be real or anything like it - this is black comedy, satire. And as such, it’s not bad at all – so long as you can get past the grim violence. The writing is uneven and could use a decent editor and personally, I didn’t find it laugh out loud funny. Nevertheless, Locke has created a very engaging character in Donnie Creed, and his first person narrative voice does keep you turning the pages. I doubt I’ll buy another one, as it’s not really my cup of tea, but I can see why Locke has sold a lot of books. Three stars.