Sunday 24 December 2017

Book review: 'Dark Ocean' by Nick Elliott

The cover gives a big clue to the themes explored in the book!

The spy and thriller genre is built on winning formulas. And winning characters.

Le Carré had George Smiley. Deighton had the unnamed spy (later Harry Palmer) and Bernard Samson. Robert Ludlum had Jason Bourne. More recently, Jeremy Duns had Paul Dark.

When a writer creates a character that hits a nerve with readers (and editors), he or she would have to be a brave author to choose to abandon a winning formula. Character-based book series provide a wonderful marketing short-cut for readers; if they like the character, and the situations he or she finds themselves in, and they can anticipate what that character's future adventures will be like, then half your job of selling the book is already done.

So, when a relatively new author creates a character that seems to work, it makes perfect sense to run with that. That's the case with British author Nick Elliott's character Angus McKinnon, star of this, his second thriller set in the world of international shipping.

Write what you know is an oft-repeated trope for writers, and Elliott has done just that. His background is in international shipping and his knowledge of that world comes through in this book (and his first book, Sea of Gold) where authenticity and detail play an important role in creating a convincing backdrop for the story and the characters.

A maritime setting for a thriller is unusual, but not unknown (and here I think immediately of Horse Under Water as a relevant Deighton example), and certainly gives the author the scope for placing the storyline and characters in locations perhaps outside of the standard thriller geography. So that does give it a certain curiosity factor for the newer reader.

A marine insurance claims investigator - the job of protagonist McKinnon - doesn't have the immediate cachet of an MI:6 agent, a spymaster or an ex Special Forces assassin, but the character does have a knack for questioning everything and everyone, and tracking down the truth. Important qualities in any thriller hero.

Building on the themes prevalent in his first book, Sea of Gold - attention to detail, a rapid plotting pace, a broad international stage peopled with believable, but also exagerrated characters - Dark Ocean starts off in Hong Kong with a request from a local shipowner (as I said earlier, write what you know is a safe course to take!) and a claim on a mysterious lost carge from World War Two (not unnoticed parallels with Horse Under Water). Like any good thriller, there is a murder, a betrayal or two, shock discoveries and the ever present threat - implied and actual - of danger.

So, this book is not going to be winning awards for originality: it's building on tropes in the thriller and spy genre that stand the test of time, work most of the time and are anticipated by readers. If they weren't part of the book, one of the selling points of Dark Ocean would be lost.

Across nearly 300 pages of text, the protagonist gets a lot done and visits a lot of locations; the narrative text is pretty punchy and pacy, and largely dialogue driven. Elliott, while introducing some terrific details, doesn't seem to be an author who wastes valuable page space on exaggerated exposition or unnecessary detail. Where there is detail offered about the minutiae of international shipping insurance, sunken treasure or the characteristsics of global ports, it can drag a little, but is relatively easy for the reader to work through. It doesn't bring things to a juddering halt.

I like, therefore, that the emphasis is on dialogue to push character and plot development along; the narrative voice is fine, but not too obtrusive, serving the purposes of the plot pretty well. 

Author Nick Elliott standing, not unsurprisingly, in front of a ship!
Elliott seems to have been someone who's travelled a lot and can write authoritatively about parts of the world which up to now, haven't been staples of the majority of spy and thriller works. So, for example, part of the book takes place in Guangzhou, China, a massive mega-city which probably 20 years ago would not deserve its place as a location for action and intrigue. 

But China is the new Soviet Union in thriller terms, and it seems a fitting location for McKinnon, using a cover of a Scottish solicitor, to take a boat trip with the mysterious Mr Au. Some of the characters, like said Au, can seem a touch contrived (even stereotypical), but most of the time, they're strong enough to ignore any minor irritations. A shipping-based thriller has to, of course, have some chapters based on action in Greece, and Elliott describes the Greek locations with the authority of someone who lives there.

I certainly got the sense in reading this and other location descriptions that Elliott's done his homework, both on locations and also on the likely characters who people them, creating believable ways to advance the plot and test McKinnon's skills and capacity to spot what isn't sitting right and to keep his senses heightened.

His dialogue is one the whole pacy, taut and readable, if maybe at times lacking in many of those word-bound 'zingers' you find in a Deighton, Le Carré or Bagley which mark them out as masters of the genre and stop the reader, challenging them to read it again, so strong is the word-smithing.

Ddialogue always works best when it is as close to how people speak naturally in all sorts of situations, and I think on the whole Elliott does this aspect of the book pretty well. Sure, there are one or two clichés, and at times it read a little like a 'how-to' guide to writing thriller fiction, but on the whole it helped the reader to engage with the sometimes complex story.

If you're into ships and the international world of shipping and global trade, this is a thriller that you'll find plenty to work with, and McKinnon's more than just a cut-out-and-keep investigator cum hero.

 For the more general reader, the nautical focus and expository information about the world of shipping along with the exotic locations should have some interest, but I can imagine also a few may find this particular world a little wearying.

That said, Dark Ocean is a serviceable and taut thriller that has a lot of solid elements and one can see it has the basis - given the global nature of shipping and crime - for an extended series of adventures by the author. 

It's competitively priced at £8.99 on amazon in the UK and, if you have Kindle Unlimited, it's currently free.

1 comment:

  1. If the novelist creates the name of the main characters, it helps to build up the winning formula as well as the lasting association of the character with the name, as Fleming’s James Bond, Le Carre’s George Smiley and Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne have amply demonstrated. Films based on the novels or versions of them, based on the name of the main character indeed ensures that the authors’ continued attraction to viewers and readers. Bond franchise going strong for 50 years , and Bourne franchise with its successful run so far are examples. In the case of Deighton’s the Ipcress File, the unnamed main character acquired his name as a result of the reported humorous talk between Michael Caine and Harry Saltzman. The name of Harry Palmer is almost forgotten now, except among the small core of those like me, of certain generation, shall we say, who read the novel and watched the first showing of the film, the Ipcress File. Where as, Matt Damon is identified with Jason Bourne and Daniel Craig with James Bond, Michal Caine is more identified with Batman’s Alfred. The latter is according to my conversations with my friends here in Britain and during my visits to US and other countries.