First of This Month’s Thrillers: Black Ice by Brad Thor
Black Ice is an exciting mix of a modern spy novel and a quest that carries us from Oslo to the Norwegian Arctic Circle. CIA operative Scot Harvath is on holiday in Norway to visit his girlfriend, Sølvi, when he is convinced he sees a Chinese operative whom he killed a few years back. Sølvi works for Norwegian Intelligence and she investigates CCTV footage for him, concluding the man is called Han and is the dead agent’s cousin. She also discovers that a Russian agent was nearby at the same time. On the assumption the two had a clandestine meeting, Harvath is instructed to uncover why they were meeting in Norway.
Having found where Han is staying, Harvath follows him from the hotel but walks into an ambush from which he only just escapes alive. His attackers were Russian, confirming that something serious is happening in the country between agents of the two foreign powers. But what?
Harvath brings in the rest of his team for assistance, and they find that Han is about to leave Oslo by private jet. Using contacts in the Civil Aviation Authority, they find that the flight plan will take Han north to a town called Kirkenes, close to the Russian border.
An ex-CIA agent, Hayes, lives in that area and is called in to help. He tails Han when he arrives, and Harvath meets up with Hayes in time to watch Han and three Chinese heavies check in at a hotel. When Han is driven away later in a campervan with the three heavies convoying in another vehicle, Harvath’s team follows. They travel north towards the Barents Sea, where a key American radar station is based. When Han sets up equipment in sight of the installation, Harvath and his team are instructed to take action. Having captured Han and his kit, Harvath interrogates him.
What Harvath learns sends him to the Arctic Circle with the aim of stealing a related piece of equipment from a Sino-Russian team operating there. It’s a race against time to capture the equipment before it’s collected, and time is running out. Harvath has to overcome, not just the Chinese and Russian spies, but also polar bears and ferocious weather.
Blue Ice is an exciting read. It does suffer from quite a few deviations from the storyline, including showing us some of Norway’s tourist attractions and providing the extensive background to how Harvath’s ex-boss got his nickname, which isn’t relevant to the plot. However, those sections are neither excessively long nor uninteresting, so they don’t mar the book too much. It’s a thrilling novel with plenty of excitement, interesting locations, and a clever Cold War style backdrop.
This Month’s Second Thriller: Ballistic by Mark Greaney
Mexico. Eddie Gamboa heads up a special police team with the remit of doing whatever’s necessary to crush the drug cartels. A mission to assassinate the drug lord Daniel de la Rocha goes badly wrong, and Gamboa and most of his team die.
Court Gentry (the ‘grey man’) considered Gamboa a good friend, owing him his life after Gamboa rescued him from certain death several years before. When Gentry learns of his friend’s death from a TV bulletin, he decides to pay his last respects.
At the graveside, he’s confronted by Gamboa’s widow, who has come to remove graffiti from the cross that marks the grave. She explains that many Mexicans support de la Rocha and consider Eddie Gamboa to be scum for having led an attack on him.
Gentry is persuaded to return to the widow’s house, where he meets the family. A public celebration of Gamboa’s life has been arranged for the next day, and the widow insists on making a speech, despite being sure Gamboa’s opponents will be there to make trouble.
A close family friend is worried that serious violence will break out, and persuades Gentry to stay long enough to help him keep Gamboa’s wife safe. The two men attend the ceremony, and it’s soon clear to Gentry that violence is about to erupt. Many armed police are present and, as Gentry has already learned, they are almost certainly in de la Rocha’s pay. Sure enough, when the widow starts to speak, car horns start to drown her out. De la Rocha himself arrives and uses loudhailers to denounce her dead husband as a corrupt official who had tried to kill a law-abiding citizen. Shots are fired, and the violence starts.
Gentry steps into action, killing a handful of corrupt policemen and helping the widow and most of the family escape. De la Rocha launches a vendetta against Gamboa’s family and, in particular, his widow, who is pregnant with Gamboa’s child. De la Rocha becomes obsessed with wanting to kill Gamboa’s unborn heir in retaliation for the previous attempt on his own life. The chase begins, and Gentry finds himself caught up with the family, helping them reach somewhere they think will be safe.
De la Rocha soon tracks down their hiding place – a large hacienda in the mountains – and immediately sends local men in his pay to attack the building and kill them all. Gentry and two of Gamboa’s original team who survived the earlier mission and have now joined Gentry, successfully defend themselves against the first onslaught. Before long, though, more experience fighters arrive, and a second attack commences. This is more successful, but they are still finally repelled. Shortly after, the elite troops arrive and prepare a full military assault. Gentry knows they cannot survive what is about to happen and manages a daring and dramatic escape.
When de la Rocha later manages to kidnap Gambo’s sister, Gentry turns it into all out war and remorselessly attacks and destroys much of de la Rocha’s drug producing infrastructure until he finally achieves his objective of rescuing the sister and helping Gamboa’s wife escape to America.
All the way through, Ballistic is certainly full of action and fighting. The fights are well written, and the descriptions are not gory or overdone, but it does frequently feel more like an SAS adventure, even bordering at times on a war novel. There’s no cerebral challenge here, no mystery to solve, or any twists and turns – just an escalating series of fights. It’s an exciting read, but perhaps not one for all thriller lovers.
From a Writer’s Desk
I’ve been thinking about titles for my current work-in-progress thriller. The idea for the plot started when I was reading about the problems with counterfeit goods, and I initially gave it a working title of “Counterfeit.” Deciding that wasn’t great, I changed it to “Fake”, but I’m still not happy. Digging deeper into what the story’s really about at its heart, I came up with “Tipping Point” as an alternative. Better, perhaps? But perhaps still not ten out of ten. My plan is to find another possible title and then go a poll on Facebook to get readers’ opinions, so please look out for it so I can get your help, too. If you have an immediate thought on which of those ones stands out, please reply and let me know; I’d love to have your opinion.
Techie Snips: Sideways Moving Cars
Have you ever tried to parallel-park in a space that’s barely big enough for your car? Done that little shuffle back and forth to get close enough to the kerb without scraping the cars either side? Wouldn’t it be great if you could just rotate all your wheels ninety degrees so that the car could travel sideways into the gap? That would be so much easier.
That’s what Hyundai thought. And they did something about it. By moving the motors that drive the wheels of an electric car out of the engine bay and into the hubs of the wheels themselves, they were able to free the wheels from the constraints that normally mean they can only turn a small amount. They’ve produced a video of the demonstrator car they developed, in which they show it pulling up beside a gap, rotating its wheels ninety degrees and then driving sideway into the slot. They also show it turning on the spot by putting the wheels into their ninety degree positions and then powering the front ones in one direction and the rear wheels in the other. It has a few other nifty tricks as well. To find the video, search YouTube for “e-corner system”.
Peak at a Blog: Favourite Thriller Writers
Who are your favourite thriller writers? I wonder if they’re mentioned in this month’s blog, in which Ian talks about his favourite dozen authors. He groups them into sub-genre, from high-action adrenaline pumpers to mysteries that drag you through the pages by posing puzzles that demand an answer. He’d love to know who you would include in your own list.
Freebies & Competitions
If you live in the US, there’s a great giveaway being run by NovelSuspects. They’re offering the chance to get a set of paperbacks by Lisa Jewell; it’s open until early September.
For those of us in the UK, if you’re keen to get Richard Osman’s latest, getting it from Waterstones will give you the chance of also getting a pair of tickets on a Bluebell Railway murder mystery evening.