Rina is small and pretty and deadly, remind you of anybody? How about Villanelle? It would be great if some of the deserved attention ‘Killing Eve’ has received could benefit this novel because this is a rollicking tale of murder and mayhem with contract killer Rina Walker at the heart of everything. Phoebe Waller Bridge’s TV version of the Villanelle novels, ‘Killing Eve’, is admittedly wittier than Stealth but there’s a subtle humour here too, an element of tongue in cheek. Like Villanelle, Rina is an assassin but unlike Villanelle she has a conscience and that’s what gets her into trouble, time and time again. And when I say trouble I mean sex, violence and chaos. The cast of characters includes corrupt politicians, slimy-nasty gangsters, spies, rock stars, gurus, prostitutes and dirty policemen. Stealth is pretty much non-stop action. For Rina it’s one misadventure tumbling into another as she tries to get out from under the debt she owes a major villain and the blackmail she faces from the secret services. Rock and a hard place if ever there was one! From London to Istanbul and back again, all manner of low-life, deadbeat, degenerate and creep fronts up and most of them have it in for Rina. She is going to do her best to take them down and her best is damned good. It’s all boisterous (girl-sterous!), frisky, spirited fun. Go with the flow and you will have a ball.
The 60s is an iconic decade, it tends to mean something very specific to the people who were there, but to pilfer from Dickens, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”: The age of liberalism, flower power, Carnaby street and the Beatles, but also the Vietnam war, political and police corruption, the Krays, the beginning of “the troubles”. A decade of light and dark and one of the big achievements of this novel is to portray both sides of the coin, okay with some exaggeration occasionally, but mostly truthfully. From sexual freedom, drugs and rock and roll to bent coppers and appalling attitudes to women. If you love London and the history of the 60s this novel has much to offer, the setting is superbly observed it’s an authentic evocation.
I really enjoyed myself but it all nearly started badly. The first slang-filled page threw me a little, I wasn’t convinced instantly, and I didn’t think I was going to like this novel but I was wrong – wrong in a big way. Stealth is an all-action, page-turning, thrill-seeking pleasure ride.
London, 1967. Rina Walker is a dangerous woman, though more than a couple of men will make the mistake of assuming a pretty girl has only one use in life. It’s the kind of mistake that can be fatal. Rina is sitting in a pub on Wardour Street waiting for Bert Davis, gangland boss George Preston’s right hand man. He has a job the boss needs sorting, permanently – irrevocably! Preston heads up the biggest firm in West London, he ran it with Rina’s dad in the old days, but she’s not in a position to refuse (you’ll find out why). Bert is a no show, but as she leaves she bumps into Jack Fenton, muscle and attitude: “I know you offed Charlie and I’ll have you screaming in pain with a blade up your drawers before I do you the same way you did him.” So it don’t talk about it, right? Rina gets a good grip on the knuckleduster in her pocket and let’s him have it – hard and fast.
Rina and her lover, Lizzie, own Abigail’s, a night club and hostess bar, in Frith Street. Rina goes there after her dust up, she sees the Clerkenwell mob at the bar, they’re trying to muscle in for protection, Preston won’t like that. A fight breaks out and Lizzie’s guys deal with it but a woman is attacked while everyone’s attention is elsewhere. They have a serious problem, a “cobble fighter out of Limehouse” by the name of Dave Priest has beaten a girl he was running to death with a claw hammer. Rina covers the crime up but this isn’t something she can let slide – look out Dave Priest. Back to that favour/job for George Preston. He owes Jack Drake, now in Broadmoor, Jack wants a guy taken out and Rina has to oblige. Only the guy is a civilian and she has scruples, will she do it? Not doing has big consequences. Late in the day Rina discovers that MI6 are following her, she’s compromised, they’ve seen her commit a major crime. They also want a favour. So, there’s this nasty Conservative MP for Basingstoke whose become a problem, Rina has to make the problem go away. Before she knows it her entanglement with the security services is leading her into really dangerous territory. A whirlwind of twists, cross and double cross follows.
Don’t think about it, just enjoy it, Stealth is great fun.
Hugh Fraser is better known as the actor who played Captain Hastings in Poirot alongside David Suchet. He has had a long and fruitful career as an actor with many TV and film credits. The oOther novels in this series are Harm, Threat and Malice. Look out for our forthcoming interview with Hugh Fraser.
Stealth by Hugh Fraser
Urbane Publications 9781911583660 pbk Oct 2018