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Posted by on 2 Jan, 2024 in British Thrillers, Spy Fiction, Thriller | 0 comments



Three good spy novels to start the 2024 reading year off with!

Arctic Sun by Jack Grimwood (Michael Joseph, 16 November 2023)

Arctic Sun (Michael Joseph, 16 November 2023) by Jack Grimwood, aka fantasy author Jon Courtenay Grimwood, slipped quietly onto bookshop shelves in late 2023, and was one that I nearly missed.

Grimwood’s last novel, Island Reich, was one of my favourite thrillers of 2021 and his new book is another very enjoyable read. Arctic Sun is the third entry in his series about British Intelligence operative Tom Fox and is set in 1987, more than a year after the events of the previous book Nightfall Berlin. It opens with Fox trying hard to get fired from British Intelligence to make more time for his son. The events of the previous year have left him scarred and tired, however, when a nuclear incident takes place on the Kola Peninsula, high in the Soviet Arctic, he is coerced by his boss, who is also his father-in-law, to take on one last mission for the sake of his family’s future.

Caught up in the area near to the explosion is research zoologist Amelia Blackburn, whose previous help was vital to Fox. When he is shown a surveillance photo of Amelia, he has a further reason to take the mission and heads into arctic depths of Norway, Finland and Russia. Meanwhile back in England, Fox’s young son, Charlie, is facing his own dangers.

This is a vividly written and very tense novel that quickly involves the reader in Fox’s risky mission to uncover the truth about what really happened on the isolated Kola Peninsula. It is a intricate tale full of subterfuge, conspiracy and mixed loyalties, that is made more complex by a secondary timeline involving Tom’s exploits in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. There is also subplot involving Charlie, who frequently sees and talks to his dead sister, which did not really work for me, although it is well resolved.

In the tradition of most British spy fiction, Fox is a flawed and complex character, whose actions are often questionable. The toll of his career on his family is very clear in this book, and his strong need to make up for past mistakes comes through strongly. It adds an interesting dimension to the story, without detracting too much from its forward momentum. The central plot about nuclear weaponry and complex conspiracies is a good one, and the 1987 setting is handled well, as is the descriptions of life in the Arctic Circle.

Overall, I did not enjoy Arctic Sun quite as much as Island Reich, but it is still a very good piece of espionage fiction that will keep you well entertained. The setting and the plot are first rate and the ending is suitably bloody and gripping.

Arctic Sun was released in late 2023 in Australia and the United Kingdom, and is scheduled for hardback release in the United States on 7 January 2024.

Here is a link to my review of Grimwood’s Island Reich:

The Best Revenge by Gerald Seymour (Hodder & Stoughton, 9 January 2024)

From the start of his career way back in 1975, with Harry’s Game, Gerald Seymour’s novels have always had a gritty, topical realism to them, and a focus on the foot soldiers of the espionage and crime fighting worlds.

His latest book, The Best Revenge (Hodder & Stoughton, 9 January 2024), is the fourth entry in his series about the nondescript MI5 agent Jonas Merrick. Generally despised and overlooked by his superiors and flasher younger colleagues, and not really forgiven for unmasking a Russian spy in MI6 in The Foot Soldiers, Merrick has been banished to the Chinese desk with instructions not to ruffle feathers. But while Merrick seems to be a harmless old fellow waiting for retirement, underneath he is very astute and quite ruthless in his determination. When he stumbles upon a Chinese network, which is targeting a young naive expert in GPS-free missile guidance systems, he sets in place a devious operation that has the potential to strike a blow to China’s espionage network in the UK.

One thing that Merrick is unaware of, however, is an operation against himself by the Russians who have been given the instruction from Putin to ‘bring me his head’.

This is a slow burn of a thriller, that steadily builds its way to a series of tense moments and a bloody climax in England and in far-off Russia. The pace may be slow at times, but the tension is high throughout, and as with most of Seymour’s novels, the outcome is never clear until the final moment.

The details of the operation are credible and interesting, and the various foot soldiers on both sides are well crafted and believable. There are some terrific little vignettes, including an amusing incident involving a tea trolley, and Merrick’s clever efforts to outwit both his foreign enemies and his superiors is fondly reminiscent of Brian Freemantle’s Charlie Muffin books.

An outstanding spy novel for those readers with patience and a love of well executed plots.

The Best Revenge is released in Australia on 9 January 2024 and in the United Kingdom on 2 January 2024. Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced copy of the book for review.

Dark Arena by Jack Beaumont (Allen & Unwin, 3 January 2024)

Jack Beaumont, purportedly the pseudonym of a former operative of the clandestine operations branch of the French foreign secret service (DGSE) who now lives in Australia, made a good entry into the international thriller genre with his first novel The Frenchman.

The Frenchman was a gritty espionage tale with plenty of seemingly authentic spy detail, which was seen through an interesting French perspective. Dark Arena, (Allen & Unwin, 3 January 2024), continues the adventures of DGSE agent Alec de Payns, who is tasked with tracking down an agent of influence who is sending highly classified material against the Kremlin to embassies all over Europe. A deadly conspiracy is aligning the West against Russia. But who is behind it? And to what end?

As de Payns, and the other agents in the secretive Y Division of the DGSE, manipulate various sources, and even go undercover themselves, they become aware that a major operation is also being planned using Middle Eastern terrorist units.

Dark Arena is an intricate, but generally quick moving spy novel, that provides an interesting new perspective on events in Europe in early 2022. The plot unfolds in a credible way, with plenty of clandestine meetings and some nicely observed moments of tension and action. The story builds to gripping climaxes in Turkey and the Mediterranean, and a coldly observed final conclusion.

As with The Frenchman, it excels in its detailed descriptions of spycraft, the politics of French Intelligence operations, the relationships with other intelligence agencies, and the security measures taken by elite DGSE agents. Sometimes it all seems a bit too elaborate, but generally it is seamlessly interwoven into the story. This seemingly insider grasp of spy techniques, especially around organising secret meetings, gives the novel a convincing shine of credibility, and Beaumont is also good at describing the various locations through which de Payns passes through.

Beaumont’s characters are well crafted and are not the one dimensional, gun-toting super heroes to be found in some spy fiction. He is also very good at articulating the personal cost of spying, both on the families of the French agents and the foreign assets that they use. De Payns’ awkward relationship with his wife is well described and believable, and even the minor characters, particularly his boss Briffaut, are nuanced and interesting.

There are a couple of slow moments, and the final twist is easy to see coming, but overall I really enjoyed Dark Arena.

Dark Arena is released in Australia on 3 January 2024. Release in the United Kingdom is not until 27 February 2024. Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced copy of the book for review.

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