Review by Philipa Coughlan
Publisher: Wildfire 2nd September 2021
A Russian says “….bad guys and ballerinas, our gifts to the world.” A great line in this first fictional thriller by Johnson, who has written an exceptional set of memoirs. Russia figures large in this plot but so does our great central character, Gary Nelson.
Gary has a routine for the commute to his rather dull job in the city. Each day he watches as a woman on the train applies her makeup in a ritual he now knows by heart- a heart that needs some love. Gary has as ever never dared to strike up a conversation with her – but may one day he thinks – and shares his lack of confidence with his longstanding housemates and loyal friends. Then one evening on the late train to Gipsy Hill the woman invites him to take up the empty seat beside her fiddling with her mascara. She holds up the makeup mirror and Gary reads the words ‘HELP ME’ scrawled in sticky black letters on the glass.
From that moment Gary’s life is turned on its head. He finds himself on the run from the Russian Mafia, the FSB, organised and violent gangs and the Metropolitan Police all because of this woman. A thrilling plot takes often violent turns but also holds onto the charming naïve belief that Gary holds in those for whom he cares. This is a love story where Gary is swept far beyond a quiet chat on the train.
As Home Secretary Johnson would have been aware of espionage, organised crime, police corruption and international threats are often on our very doorstop. He was also an elected MP under a Government who encouraged Russian business to come into London with often suspect backgrounds. Maybe Johnson has more insight than he likes to acknowledge and might need now to watch his back! But we in Britain are also clear that Russian criminal acts take place on our shores. The poisoning of Alexander Litivenko with polonium and the Scripals and an innocent woman with novichok in Salisbury are horrendous acts of murder for which no one has been brought to trial. Are they always the bad guys in Russia? Of course not and the character of Arina from Ukraine may well save the day for the country and for Gary.
There is a charm in Johnson’s writing even in full throttle in a contemporary thriller. The first character we meet in the book is a cat and I know Johnson has a huge affection for cats. As Oskar prowls around The Strand Hotel he observes the unfolding drama, on the side but totally crucial. Just like the interplay between Gary, his single mother Rachel and their search for his birth father which evolves in a somewhat 1950s mystery aside. Right at the end there does seem a rush to join together the links and join the dots which needs following closely but this may be my only criticism. I loved it as a personal read and think book groups will enjoy the characters and the very topical subject matter.
This may be the first venture for Alan Johnson, but to use a phrase from another of his past occupation as a postman – he certainly delivers!