A FATAL GAME by Nicholas Searle (Viking, $A32.99)
2019 has been a very good year so far for British spy fiction with a host of terrific books by authors such as Mick Herron, Tim Sebastian and Henry Porter, and the promise of some good books still to come by John Le Carre and others.
Nicholas Searle’s A Fatal Game is not in the same class as those mentioned above, but it is still a solid, and slightly unusual, spy thriller.
It opens in dramatic fashion with a British security operation going terribly wrong, resulting in a number of deaths at a busy railway station. Jake Winter was the British Intelligence officer in charge of the operation and it was his asset who seemingly betrayed it. As the Parliamentary inquiry into what happened at the railway station gets underway, Jake is running a new a new operation with a new source.
Rashid is recently returned from the fighting in the Middle East, disillusioned with the violence and bloodshed. He is Jake’s key to foiling the next attack and to uncovering the leader of the network. But can Rashid be trusted, or is he leading Jake into another trap.
A Fatal Game is a seemingly straight forward story as we follow the unfolding of the new operation, while the Inquiry into the bombing at the railway station gets underway in the background. As to be expected there is maneuvering by the Intelligence Services and the Government to shift blame away from them and increasingly it seems that Jake will the scapegoat. There are also the families of the victims who want justice for what happened to their loved ones. Meanwhile we are privy to the thoughts of the four young men who will carry out the new bombing under the direction of the mysterious ‘sheikh’. Steadily the story moves towards the potentially fatal trial run of their mission.
Searle is very good at conveying the thoughts and inner turmoil of the main protagonists, particularly the four young terrorists, and exploring their path to extremism. Jake’s uncertainty and building disillusionment is also well developed and we share his frustrations with his superiors.
The first half of the book does move a little sluggishly and the plot lacks the twists and turns and tension that we expect of a spy novel. The detailed description of the mechanics of the operation and the spycraft used by the agents, adds credibility to the story, but it does slow the pace. However, Searle largely redeems himself by adding some new complications in the second half and by introducing an unexpected, but logical, twist in the final chapters that shocked me and set the book up nicely for a taut ending. Those who like everything to be wrapped up nicely, however, will be disappointed.
In all, I thought that A Fatal Game, was an enjoyable spy thriller, but that it could have been better with a bit more suspense and less internal conversations. The ending is good and it will be interesting to see if Searle produces a sequel, there is certainly scope to do so.
I give it three and a half to four stars.
A Fatal Game was released in July 2019. It is available in trade paperback and also on Kindle for a very reasonable price (especially in the United Kingdom). It is published in Australia by Penguin Random House.