Wednesday, 29 November 2017

East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rahman

In recent years there’s been a crop of crime writing emerging from the British Asian Community, brilliant writers whose work I’ve been honoured to review. Khurrum Rahman and his East of Hounslow joins Imran Mahmood’s debut You Don’t Know Me; Amer Anwar’s Western Fringes; A A Dhand’s Streets of Darkness and Girl Zero.  So how does he compare? Well Rahman lives up to the competition and some.

East of Hounslow tells the story of Javid Qasim, “Jay”, a petty drug dealer carving an illicit living for himself on the streets of West London. He’s Muslim, but he’s not religious in the slightest, barely observant. He’s typical in fact of many young men who wander from the straight and narrow in these times of austerity, stagnant wages and a dearth of opportunities. But Jay is Muslim and through no fault of his own that is going to lead to problems for him. It starts when his local mosque is desecrated. Jay pitches in to help clean up the mess and repair the damage but it’s quickly apparent that some hotheads are stirring up trouble trying to get some of the local youths to hit back. Jay goes along to a meeting, more to look out for his gullible and impressionable friend. For similar reasons, when his friend gets drawn into the hype to hit back at some random whites, Jay goes along to keep him out of trouble. Of course, trouble is what they get, not least Jay’s car being swiped in the ensuing chaos, which so happens to have all the drugs he has on credit from a powerful drug lord in the boot.

Meanwhile, MI5 have their eyes on Jay as a potential recruit. They believe a cell of Islamic extremists is operating in the area and feel Jay would be the perfect informant. From here Jay’s life gets complicated and very dangerous. The druglord, Silas Drakos, is the unforgiving type. MI5 meanwhile sink their claws into him and Jay is recruited. So, he ends up juggling keeping an eye out for Silas’s henchmen, infiltrating a dangerous cell of extremists, all the while struggling with both his own sense of identity and MI5’s demands.     

There are many things to like about East of Hounslow. It’s a thriller that moves along at a great pace and tells a compelling story, but it’s so much more than that. One thing I particularly liked about this book is the author’s depiction of Jay’s recruitment by MI5. As a current affairs journalist, I’ve had occasion in the past to meet with anti-terrorist officers, civil servants in the Cabinet Office, and others who’ve worked with the Security Services. One thing many writers get wrong is the process of source recruitment. Contrary to common belief, those employed directly on the staff of the intelligence services, those who receive a wage, pay their taxes, get a pension at the end of thirty years or whatever, aren’t “agents”. Rather, these are case officers or intelligence officers. An agent is the person the intelligence officer recruits on the inside, what the police might call an informant. The police vernacular is much more honest about all this. The police call their “agents” sources or informants and thus the people the police recruit are never really under any illusions as to their role. The people the security services recruit however, by being called “agents” rather than informants or sources, might be. The author teases this out brilliantly. When Jay is first recruited he has these images in his head from James Bond movies, he has this idea that he’s going to receive the special watch that fires poisonous darts or receive training in spy-craft. He doesn’t get how expendable he is. Throughout the narrative the tension builds as Jay begins to suspect the truth and his handler attempts to manage his expectations. Then there’s the tension between his handler who feels a duty of care to Jay and others in MI5 who see him as merely a tool.

Another aspect of this novel I liked, especially in the current climate, is how the author gets across how ordinary young Muslims can be radicalised through disenfranchisement and alienation, until they’re willing to commit the most heinous acts of terror. At no point does the author glamourise this process, or make excuses for those who cross the line from fundamentalism to violent jihad, but the portrayal of his characters does explain how this process might occur. While the ending, without divulging spoilers, is frighteningly plausible; indeed, a recent event made me think it might be scarily prescient.

East of Hounslow is an incredibly assured debut. It can be read on many different levels. If the reader prefers, it can be enjoyed as simply a thriller. But to my mind it is so much richer. This is a cutting critique of the war on terror, the techniques the Security Services use to foil plots, the mistakes they make when doing so. It is also a commentary on the life experiences of young Muslims living the UK today, the tensions between their Britishness and their Islamic identities, the competing influences that pull at their psyches. However one chooses to enjoy this novel, it really is something special and should not be missed.

Apparently, we haven’t heard the last of Jay and indeed the book while wrapping itself up nicely is ripe for a sequel. I for one can’t wait for Jay’s next outing, for if it’s anything like East of Hounslow it’ll be great.

5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The Man Who Died by Antti Tuomainen

In recent years Nordic Noir has been the irrepressible buzz phrase in crime fiction. The bookshelves heave with crime thrillers set in some frozen locale. I must be one of the few crime thriller fans never to have been caught up in the whole craze. Don’t get me wrong, there are many Nordic Noir novels I’ve read an enjoyed, but for me the story has always been paramount and I’ve enjoyed novels set all over the world just as much. That said, one of my absolute favourite Nordic writers is Antti Tuomainen. I loved his novel The Healer, a dark tale set in the aftermath of catastrophic climate change, while his novel The Mine, a tale of corruption set in Finland’s mining industry, was sublime.

While I might not be a fully paid up member of the Nordic Noir phenomenon, I do love noir. The darker and grittier the better. Until now, Antti Tuomainen’s work has suited me perfectly which is why I was a little concerned to read that for his latest work he was lightening the tone somewhat. Apparently, he was going to write something “quirky”. Was I about to lose one of my favourite authors? Well I needn’t have worried. The Man Who Died is a lighter novel, but in the mould of Fargo. This is quirk with a pitch-black heart. 

Jaako Kaunismaa is a mushroom entrepreneur. He and his wife, Taina, having discovered that the Japanese have a fondness for the mushrooms growing in the local forests, started a business that picks, freeze dries and exports them. But Jaako’s been feeling ill of late and the book begins with him visiting the doctor to receive some rather bad news: he’s been poisoned. It appears that somehow he’s ingested toxins and his organs are failing. Jaako returns home planning ion telling Taina the news only to find her having sex with the company’s handyman. His wife’s infidelities aren’t his only problem for their mushroom company also has a new competitor, almost overnight some men with dubious backgrounds have opened a mushroom processing plant complete with the latest machinery.

So Jaako now realises two things, firstly that he’s been murdered and second that he isn’t short of suspects. Was it Taina his unfaithful wife? The covetous handyman? His company’s new competitors? Some combination of two or all three? The Man Who Died follows Jaako’s quest to solve the crime of his murder, while saving his company, the last thing he care for now he’s lost his wife.

This is a great book and I enjoyed it immensely. The comparisons with Fargo are apt for The Man Who Died shares the same black humour and is populated by similarly hapless characters. Reading the book, you just know that the story is going to end badly for some and part of the fun is trying to guess who will come to the stickiest end. Having finished the novel I don’t feel like I’ve lost one of my favourite authors after all, rather that he’s just reinvented himself. Will he go back to the darker noir? I hope he does occasionally, but equally I would like to see more of these Fargoesque stories. Perhaps he could alternate. But whatever the author chooses to write I’m sure it will be enjoyable.

5 out of 5 stars 

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Surviving Kidnappers by Olav Ofstad

In some ways this is an odd book, after all, just what are the chances of getting kidnapped? Well, the answer of course depends on where you live and what you do for a living. There are many people throughout the world who probably are at heightened risk – aid workers in conflict zones for example – and this book, written by a Norwegian lawyer and researcher might just save their life. Olav Ofstad certainly knows his stuff, having spent years in conflict zones working with embassies and international organisations and worked in the field of conflict resolution. To be sure some of the information at the beginning of the book about avoiding undue risks in the first place reads like basic common sense, but it isn’t long before he serves up intriguing, and quite possibly lifesaving, psychological analysis.

Surviving Kidnappers takes the reader through the process of being kidnapped, confinement, to (hopefully) release or rescue. Throughout the author analyses the psychological skills and stratagems one might use to survive. This is no gung-ho, wannabe special forces survival manual, rather a serious study gleaned through interviews with victims of kidnapping combined with the insights gleaned from the psychological literature. Topics include building empathy and understanding, utilising cognitive dissonance and cultivating a feeling of reciprocity on behalf of one’s kidnapper.

It would be a shame if this book was only read by those at risk of kidnapping, for as with many such titles the insights gleaned can feed into all walks of life. An appreciation of social psychology and how to influence others can be beneficial to anyone who’s job leads them to interact with others. I personally read a wide range of non-fiction and Surviving Kidnapping has certainly given me a greater appreciation of the psychological underpinnings of severe trauma, as well as a great understanding of psychological resilience.

5 out of 5 stars