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. 

Saturday 23 December 2017

Merry Christmas to all Deighton Dossier readers around the globe

Even amidst barbarity, Christmas good will could still peek through in Berlin
Well, another year draws to an end and, as we approach the holiday season and New Year, I would like to say thank you, Merry Christmas and Yuletide felicitations to every Deighton reader and collector out there who visits this blog from time to time, and particularly those guests bloggers who've posted something on the site.

Posting up on the blog and the main website in 2017 has been down on previous years, for various reasons, but I hope that Deighton Dossier readers found interest in checking out some of our now ten years' worth of previous articles.

This year, as you sip your mulled wine or enjoy a mince pie, be thankful that you are not Bernard Samson, the hero of the Berlin Game ennealogy, having to be in frozen West Berlin on Christmas Eve, as described in London Match:
'And so it was that, on Christmas Eve, when Gloria was with my children, preparing them early for bed so that Santa Claus could operate undisturbed, I was standing watching the Berlin police trying to winch a wrecked car out of the water. It wasn't exactly the Hohenzollern Canal. Dicky had got that wrong; it was Hakenfelde, that industrialised section of the bank of the Havel River not far from where Hohenzollern joins it.
Here the Havel widens to become a lake. It was so cold that the doctor insisted the frogmen must has a couple of hours' rest to thaw out. The police inspector had argued about it, but in the end the doctor's opinion prevailed. Now the boat containing the frogmen had disappeared into the gloom and was left with only the police inspector for company. The two policemen left to guard the scene had gone behind the generator truck, the noise of which never ceased.
The inspector was in his mid-fifties, a tall man with a large white moustache, its end curling in the style of the Kaiser's soldiers. It was the sort of moustache a man grew to make himself look older. 'To think,' said the inspector, 'that I transferred out of the Traffic Department beause I thought standing on point duty was too cold.' He stamped his feet. His heavy jackboots made a crunching sound where ice was forming in the cracks between the cobblestones.
'You should have kept to traffic,' I said, 'but transferred to the Nice or Cannes Police Department.'