Source: Review copy
Publication: 2 September 2021 from Wildfire
My thanks to Caitlin Raynor and Wildfire Books for an advance copy for review
A woman hiding a deadly secret. And the man who went in search of adventure, but found himself in danger …
Gary Nelson 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 make up in a ritual he now knows by heart. He’s never dared to strike up a conversation . . . but maybe one day.
Then one evening, on the late train to Gipsy Hill, the woman invites him to take the empty seat beside her. Fiddling with her mascara, she holds up her 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 and even the Metropolitan Police – all because of what this mysterious young woman may have witnessed. In the race to find out the truth, Gary discovers that there is a lot more to her than meets the eye
Alan Johnson enjoys writing. You can feel it bubbling up through the pages and most of all in the moments of tension relieving humour that creep and catch you just when your teeth are grinding that little bit too hard.
He enjoys writing characters too – almost as much as I enjoyed reading them. Gary Nelson is a clueless but sweet cricket fan whose life is unremarkable and who just wants a girlfriend. Knuckles, his flatmate has a nature that belies his nickname. And then there are the Russians who have learnt a thing or two since the days of Litvinenko, but not enough to stop pretty stupid mistakes from happening.
There are freelance Russian agents and then there’s the FSB and in both cases they are struggling to outdo each other in showing their allegiance to the great leader, Putin. Unfortunately, this is not playing out in Moscow but in the streets and the best hotels in London – a city they need to be in most of the time because how else would they launder the proceeds of their less than honest endeavours?
Gary has been mooning over a woman he sees on his daily commute but who he has never yet found the courage to speak to. Then one evening, after she has been missing from his train for a few days, he sees her again and decides to grasp the moment. But before he has that opportunity, she acts first.
Soon Gary is embroiled in something that he could never have dreamt of, even in his nightmares. He becomes a young knight who must rescue his fair maiden, but these dragons he is up against give no quarter and soon both Gary and the young woman –named Arina- are involves in a desperate race against time in which Johnson cleverly builds the tension and creates a thrilling chase in which the might of the Metropolitan Police is matched against both the FSB and the Russian mafia.
Johnson’s novel is rooted in fact and there are nods to behind the scenes events which help the authenticity of this pacy, twisting and thrilling read. Whether it is the bare faced blatancy of the Novichok poisonings or the very recent expulsion of BBC journalist Sarah Rainsford from Russia, Johnson had me questioning whether the Cold War is being fought all over again it’s just that we won’t admit to it.
Johnson writes with a fluid, enjoyable style and his book is part love story and part espionage thriller with a touch of gangster wars thrown in. This makes for an intense and immersive read leavened by those flashes of humour that help keep it real.
Verdict: A highly enjoyable, well plotted and easy to read thriller with some brilliant tense moments an intricate plot and a hero you really root for. Great fun!
Alan Johnson’s childhood memoir THIS BOY was published in 2013. It won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, and the Orwell Prize, Britain’s top political writing award. His second volume of memoirs, PLEASE MR POSTMAN (2014) won the National Book Club award for Best Biography. The final book in his memoir trilogy, THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD (2016), won the Parliamentary Book Award for Best Memoir. Alan was a Labour MP for 20 years before retiring ahead of the 2017 general election. He served in five cabinet positions in the Governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown including Education Secretary, Health Secretary and Home Secretary. He and his wife Carolyn live in East Yorkshire.