2024 THRILLER BLOCKBUSTERS: ANNA O By Matthew Blake and ARGYLLE By Elly Conway
Sailing in on a sea of hype come two of the biggest thriller releases of early 2024!
Much of the hype around Elly Conway’s Argylle, (Bantam, January 2024), comes from the forthcoming movie of the same name, and the speculation as to who the pseudonymous Elly Conway really is.
In a quick recap for those unfamiliar with the publicity storm around the book and movie, Argylle is a forthcoming action comedy movie, directed by Matthew Vaughn and featuring an ensemble cast, including Henry Cavill, Bryce Dallas Howard, Catherine O’Hara and Samuel L. Jackson. The film rights for Argylle were purchased by Apple back in 2021 for $200 million, and it is reportedly going to be one of the biggest film releases of 2024. The story revolves around Elly Conway (note the name), an introverted spy novelist who seldom leaves her home, who is drawn into the real world of espionage when the plots of her books, featuring a fictional secret agent named Argylle, get a little too close to the activities of a sinister underground syndicate. When Aidan, an undercover spy, shows up to save her from being kidnapped or killed, Elly and her beloved cat Alfie are plunged into a covert world where nothing and no one are what they seem, including the discovery that Agent Argylle exists for real.
Speculation has been rife as to who the pseudonymous Elly Conway really is. The publicity material states that: “Elly Conway was born and raised in upstate New York. She wrote her first novel about Agent Argylle while working as a waitress in a late-night diner.” No one, however, believes this, especially given the massive amount that was paid to the supposedly first time author for the book and film rights. The identity of Elly Conway is supposedly going to be revealed when the movie is released in February 2024. Theories about her identity range from various popular authors to it being being produced by AI, to it being a collaborative effort by Vaughn and the film’s scriptwriters The most popular theory, however, is that Elly Conway is actually Taylor Swift, which would explain the secrecy and the massive amount paid for the rights. There are apparently lots of hints and clues that have been churned over by Taylor’s fan base that point to her authorship, including that the fact that Taylor Swift and the movie character Elly Conway both have a Scottish Fold cat. I suspect that it is all a massive publicity stunt, but we will see.
As to the book itself. Argylle the book, is not the same as Argylle the movie. The movie is reportedly based on the fourth book in the series (the books have all been written, but their release held back to coincide with the movie schedule), whereas the Argylle the book does not feature Elly Conway as a character, and is a sort of prequel to the movie. The book revolves around the recruitment of Argylle, the son of drug traffickers, and his first mission for the CIA. The mission involves the hunt for the legendary Amber Room and takes Argylle from his hideaway in the jungles of Thailand to Monaco, to the monasteries of Mount Athos to a forgotten cavern in the remote mountains of Poland.
As a book, Argylle is pleasant, light entertainment. The plotting is brisk and action filled, and the characters are adequately drawn. The main villain, a Russian magnate who wants to restore his country’s greatness, is suitably evil and memorable, and there is a great supporting character in the form of the CIA spymaster, Frances Coffey.
The treasure chasing plot is relatively straight forward, and has a strong cinematic feel to it. The writing is fairly simple and the character defining episodes are predictable, and very familiar to anyone who has seen a blockbuster movie. The grasp of contemporary geopolitics is simplistic and story’s basic conceit does not stand up to close scrutiny. There is, however, some very good set-pieces, the conclusion is dramatic and surprising, and the machinations by Coffey add some interest to the story.
In all it is an enjoyable read, but does not live up to the hype.
Anna O, (Harper Collins, 31 January 2024), by Matthew Blake is far better.
The basic premise of Blake’s high concept crime thriller is that a patient known as Anna O has not opened her eyes in the four years since she was found in a deep sleep alongside the slaughtered bodies of her best friends. The British government wants to bring an end to the media frenzy around Anna O, by finally determining whether she is capable of standing trial for the double murder of her friends. They elicit the secret help of Doctor Benedict Prince, a forensic psychologist on London’s Harley Street and an expert in sleep, to see if he can wake her. For Prince, waking Anna O could be career-defining, but it does not come without risk. As he begins Anna O’s treatment – studying his patient’s dreams, combing her memories, visiting the site where the horrors played out – Prince begins to pull on the thread of a much deeper, darker mystery.
Anna O is a meticulously plotted and intriguing thriller that steadily draws you in and keeps you avidly reading until the end. The action is sparse, but there is a strong sense of suspense and tension throughout, and the book builds to a suitably surprising climax. The central concept of deep sleep initially requires some uncritical acceptance by the reader, but Blake is very good at underpinning it with credible sounding research and case studies that make it easy to go along with the flow of the story. The frequent shifts in viewpoint, and the use of Anna’s diary from before the murders, help to build the mystery, and they add in the complexity that you expect from a good thriller.
Matthew Blake has written three very good spy novels under the name of Matthew Richardson, and while Anna O is not an espionage thriller, there is the same sense of government secrets, behind the scenes maneuverings and dark deeds that you would expect from a spy book. There is also an intriguing cold case mystery, which adds to the novel’s appeal.
My only reservation is that I never really warmed to Prince, and his actions sometimes seem at odds with someone of his purported ability. But this is a minor matter, and overall I thoroughly enjoyed Anna O.
Anna O is released in Australia on 31 January 2024 and in the United Kingdom on 1 February 2024. It was released in the United States in early January 2024.