Khurrum Rahman burst onto the crime fiction scene in 2017 with his brilliant debut East of Hounslow. Homegrown Hero is his hotly anticipated sequel and once again we’re with Jay Qasim, a British-born Muslim reluctantly recruited by MI5 as an agent (an informant in the police’s parlance). After the events of the first book he’s been dropped by MI5, much to his relief, and is trying to reestablish some sense of normality. But The Teacher, the head of the jihadi group Qasim infiltrated, is still at large and some in MI5 want Jay to help them to finish what they’ve started. Meanwhile, some within the jihadi group have learnt that Qasim was the one who betrayed them and set an assassin on his tail. While far right thugs and an assault on a Muslim girl leading to her suicide set in motion a powerful subplot.
All this is promising material and certainly current, but the question is, does Rahman pull it off with the aplomb of East of Hounslow? Or does Homegrown Hero suffer from the dreaded second book hurdle?
As with the first book, I firstly have to get my little bugbear out of the way and one which I alluded to at the start. An agent to the intelligence services is what an informant would be to the police, while those employed by the agencies, their staff, are intelligence officers. Many a writer gets such details wrong and the problem is exacerbated by the fact that some countries have agencies which straddle the law enforcement/intelligence divide and don’t obey this rule. A good example of this is the American FBI, both a law enforcement agency and one like MI5 that deals with domestic intelligence, which calls it’s employees agents (confusingly, the CIA which is solely engaged in intelligence, calls its staff officers and its informants agents). Rahman is to be applauded for getting such details right.
The above might appear to be a small doctrinal issue, but it speaks to a wider realism in the narrative. Post-911 Western intelligence agencies were under enormous pressure to prevent further attacks and this was exacerbated after every successive outrage. As always, their response was two pronged and both were controversial. The first is electronic surveillance and the Snowden revelations amongst others have demonstrated the controversy that comes with that. The second is human intelligence, the recruitment of agents. A number of revelations have come out in recent years concerning how intelligence officers have gone to great lengths to recruit agents – offering inducements and where that doesn’t work, engaging in coercion and even blackmail. MI5 has been accused of such behaviour on a number of occasions and there have been reports in the press, and human rights groups have lodged complaints, alleging their officers bullied and harassed Muslims in an attempt to recruit them as agents.
Most spy novels are told from the perspective of the intelligence officer, very few are told from the perspective of the agent. This is similar to crime novels where the vast majority are told from the perspective of the police and very few are told from the perspective of the informant. Where agents or informants do feature in fiction, they’re all too often seen through the eyes of the police or intelligence officers. So they’re portrayed as perhaps shifty and untrustworthy, mercenary or licentious, certainly with motives that are questionable. This might well be understandable and certainly reflects how they’re seen. I’m lucky to know a number of police officers and once discussed the issue with an officer whose work entailed running multiple informants (for a large regional police force in England). I asked how he felt about them and he was blunt in his contempt. When meeting with them he had to pretend to be able to tolerate them, like them even, but his real feelings were clear. To be sure, his informants were criminals, whereas some of the informants intelligence agencies recruit will be ordinary people with access, such as Muslims in the local community, but the fact remains that distrust can remain especially where the informant is coerced. Jay Qasim, the protagonist of East of Hounslow and Homegrown Hero is such a person, coerced into working for MI5 and then treated appallingly, and his story is told with real humanity and warmth.
If this wasn’t all, the second character the author introduces into Homeland Hero, the assassin, is equally well drawn. He’s a sleeper jihadi, one sent decades before to inculcate himself into British life until one day he’s activated. While this character predicament isn’t as firmly based in reality as Qasim’s treatment at the hands of MI5 (as far as I know at least) there have been sleeper agents in service to the KGB and its successors and much discussion has been had as to the psychology that must go into that. Only a few years ago a whole host of sleeper agents were discovered in the US and then deported back to Russia, some having adult children who had grown up in the America with no idea of what their parents were doing. Rahman gives his sleeper assassin real personality. He’s a man who’s fallen in love with a non-Muslim woman and her child and is reluctant to embrace his calling once he’s activated. I ended up liking this character as much as Qasim and the novel is nail biting at the finale when both characters lives are on the line.
One final aspect of this book which I must not overlook, and one which might not be guessed from this review, is the humour. For despite dealing with serious and weighty issues, there are comedic elements to both Homegrown Hero and the previous title, East of Hounslow. Qasim with his quick wit and street smarts is a character with real charisma and his internal monologue can bring on more than the odd chuckle. This not only makes one warm to his predicament but also counteracts some of the darker scenes, thus bringing the narrative a little light.
So conclusions? Homegrown Hero is a worthy book two and one which is well worth a read. With both titles the author has managed a remarkable feat, penning popular fiction that tackles weighty topics while not being afraid to pack a punch and broach controversy. With a splash of humour, a likeable protagonist, and a sympathetic antagonist you can’t help but root for too, there really is little not to like.
James Pierson 5/5
Homegrown Hero by Khurrum Rahman
HQ 9780008229603 pbk Nov 2018