This is the first Sam Bourne novel I’ve read and I’m pleased to say it won’t be the last, this is consummate thriller writing, a deft blend of psychological drama, murder mystery and political conspiracy. To Kill a Man is thoroughly enjoyable and totally gripping but it’s also addresses some important contemporary concerns. In fact it couldn’t be more relevant, dealing, as it does, with the mistreatment and abuse of women, particularly in the workplace environment. It gives the reader plenty to think about and I like that in a thriller.
I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by To Kill a Man, I think I was expecting something a bit lighter, a story with less grounding and real world heft, perhaps more of an adventure story than the plausible, relevant and intelligent plot that Bourne delivers. Maybe I should have known better, after all Sam Bourne is the alter-ego of first rate journalist Jonathan Freedland, a man with an in-depth knowledge of the US political system and American culture and life. This thriller has a genuine insider authenticity to it.
On the surface this is the story of a death during the commission of a rape, probably a simple case of self defence, but some of the evidence doesn’t point that way. The testimony of the victim doesn’t entirely add up for the police. Was it a justified homicide or a murder? The clever, twisty plot doesn’t reveal the truth until the end of course and there are plenty of red herrings and false trails along the way. However, the case becomes a cause celebre and this is an issue everyone has an opinion on, from genuine believers to opportunists with an eye for the main chance either supporting or attacking the victim, Natasha. Where the truth lies get lost in the controversy generated in the aftermath of the incident and it all ties into an upcoming presidential election.
To Kill a Man is as pacy as the Japanese bullet train, it’s morally complex and so in the moment. In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein trial we all want to know where #MeToo will go. We want to feel that real change has been affected and that things will be better in the future. This novel reflects on that concern for uncovering the sins of the past and the hopes for a safer work environment now. Sadly, the political world, powerful men and a lack of proper scrutiny and regulation means that we will be back here again. Zeitgeist themes are good when the issues are not shoe horned in or portrayed in a cursory way, no danger of either here, on the contrary this story is a natural fit with events currently unfolding around the world because of its empathetic and insightful analysis. Bourne even illustrates the story with some troublingly real examples of abuse from around the world which make that point very forcefully.
Washington DC attorney Natasha Winthrop has a solid reputation and a rising public profile, she has served as lead counsel to the House Intelligence Committee in the past, a thorn in the side of the current administration. She is considered a hero by those who despise the incumbent president and hated in equal measure by his supporters, drawing the usually vitriolic online reaction to powerful women: “choke bitch” (there’s plenty worse).
Tonight everything changed, Natasha was attacked, later she tells the police about the intruder they find lying dead on her office floor. She claims that she didn’t know the man, it was a random attack. Natasha heard the intruder, then saw him in the doorway to her office, clad head to foot in black, swearing a ski mask. He came for her, attempted to rape her but Natasha managed to grab a bust from her desk and hit him with it. She hit the man so hard that he died instantly. Then the procedures started, Natasha is strong but the police are aggressive, they know something. She sticks to her story, even when it appears there may be evidence that contradicts a key aspect of her account.
Before the news of the attack breaks, Maggie Costello, political fixer, meets with the front runner for the presidential nomination, Tom Harrison, seventy years old, ‘a veritable legend’ in this town. He spins Maggie a story about valuing her foreign policy experience but it boils down to the fact that she is a top notch Washington trouble shooter and that’s what he is looking for. As Harrison leaves the meeting he grabs Maggie’s shoulders, squeezes and leans in to whisper: “Can’t wait to have you on board.” She stiffens, is there something sinister in this? What example does it set to the young women on the campaign if a senior staffer puts up with inappropriate behaviour? Or, should she question her own judgement, maybe she’s placing too harsh an interpretation on Harrison’s words and actions? Later, looking at her phone Maggie sees that her sister is still extolling the virtues of Natasha Winthrop, maybe it’s time for a new type of politician?
Police HQ, the morning briefing hears about a coming story, Natasha Winthrop was attacked in her home and she killed her assailant. Potentially this is dynamite, the assistant chief of the Washington Metropolitan Police recognises that, he wants daily reports and a top team assigned to the case. The department needs to tread softly on this one, but, of course, seeing justice done is the only consideration, (?).
When the news of Natasha’s attack does break the gun lobby find themselves in agreement with the feminists, it goes viral:
“That’s the kind of lawyer *I* want.”
“Natasha Winthrop fought back. # Heroine”
Natasha needs Maggie to help her through the coming storm. Maggie thinks a presidential nomination could be up for grabs if Natasha wants it. A lot of people don’t want to see Natasha enter the race for the Whitehouse, favourite Harrison among them and he has powerful friends. Maggie wants to help Natasha, she believes in her, but as she finds out more about Natasha’s past a disturbing history is revealed that may put current events in a different light.
The story plays out over a few short days and zips along but there is time to examine the underlying criminal and moral issues raised by it; the rush to judgement, truth versus perception, and the manipulation of events for political gain. The conspiracy of silence surrounding the toxic workplace is surely one of the longest running modern travesties, be it collusion or turning a blind eye, isolating victims, disbelieving them and/or covering up for perpetrators. In this story even death/murder is a commodity to spin one way or the other.
Freedland is superb on the American political world and the premise of this novel is wholly credible, which makes it more chilling. In Maggie and Natasha we have two complex characters we can empathise with but there’s a lot of nuance in this story that creates plenty of grey areas, (I can’t go into any detail without spoiling the plot). Let’s just say the reader is confronted with the damage caused by abuse, the reaction of the authorities and the consequent questions over appropriate ways of dealing with both. Bourne is very good on the inner voices of his female characters, their internal arguments with themselves, debates and doubts that you can’t imagine male counterparts indulging in so readily.
There’s a healthy cynicism and a cold critical eye at work in this powerful and engaging thriller.
Paul Burke 4/4*
To Kill a Man by Sam Bourne
9781787474956 Quercus Hardback March 2020