The Defector, by Chris Hadfield
Published by Random House Canada, 368 pages
Before he was an astronaut, Chris Hadfield was a seasoned fighter pilot who knew all about dogfights in the sky. It stands to reason that his second novel, loosely based on his own experience, should begin with just such a dogfight over Vietnam in 1965. The action is hot and realistic and you can smell the grease on the guns. It’s that tinge of realism that makes Hadfield’s thrillers so enticing. Action is the name of Hadfield’s game and he delivers.
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From Vietnam, we skip eight years to Syria in October, 1973. A war is about to happen and Kaz Zemeckis, ace fighter pilot and NASA air controller, is in Israel on a relaxing tour, visiting relatives and recovering from the events around his recent Apollo mission. Looking into the sky he sees the trail of a jet and, just underneath it, his friend Laura spots another trail. Kaz knows what that means; a missile is on the way. “We have to go,” he says.
This terrific opening takes us right to the Yom Kippur War and air aces fighting against each other, but the jet Kaz is watching is no ordinary one. It disappears and, when it’s found, it’s a Foxbat Russian MiG, the best jet the Soviet Air Force has produced and its pilot, named Grief, has delivered it unscathed. He wants to defect and the price of admission to the U.S. is a piece of prime hardware. Kaz, in at the beginning, carries on to the interrogation and then to the investigation. The U.S., too, has a hot new plane, the F-15. In the heat of a Cold War, planes and pilots are knights and bishops on a global chessboard.
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The action is where Hadfield shines and there are loads of technical tidbits for Tom Clancy fans. From Israel at war to the top secret bases where government agents hide defectors, Kaz and Grief travel and talk and wait. The climax, a thrilling old-fashioned aerial combat, is Hadfield at his best. Who wins? Don’t jump to the end.
The Secret Hours, by Mick Herron
Published by Soho Crime, 384 pages
How good does new British espionage get? Read Mick Herron’s fabulous stand-alone new book and don’t weep for the loss of le Carré. As Herron proved in his brilliant Slough House series, his world of spies can hold its own with the best and here, he takes us back to where the master started: Cold War Berlin and a mission gone wrong.
There are a few twitches to remind us that we’re in the world of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but this is a different vision. The Monochrome panel has been convened to investigate issues with MI5. The panel is called by an adviser to the prime minister with a grudge against the secret service. Will he get his way and prove that pencil pushers in Whitehall are exceeding their authority?
Old-school espionage with brilliant bite
Enter panel chair Griselda Fleet, who needs money, and ambitious Malcolm Kyle, who wants to get ahead. Then someone tries to kill a member of the panel and someone else plants a classified folder on Kyle. It’s clear the panel has tripped someone’s wire but who and why? In fine style the civil servants start spying on the spies and, in Herron’s superb plotting, we all go to Berlin.
If you haven’t already discovered Herron, read this and then relish the Slough House series. Slough fans wont be disappointed that Jackson Lamb and the gang are on a rest. And, incidentally, the next Slough House adventure airs on Apple TV+ in December. Whoopee!
The Last Devil to Die, by Richard Osman
Published by Penguin Random House, 368 pages
Who’s the hottest name in British Cozy in 2023? Could be Charles Cumming or Anthony Horowitz, but my vote goes to Richard Osman, whose Thursday Murder Club, set in a seniors’ home and filled with retired spies and slightly senile souls, just gets better with each book. The Last Devil to Die is the fourth and, while I thought he couldn’t outdo last year’s The Bullet That Missed, well, he did!
The foursome – Elizabeth, retired MI5 agent Joyce, retired nurse Ibrahim, and psychiatrist and union leader Ron – are faced with the murder of their friend and colleague, Kuldesh Sharma, an antiques dealer who helped solve their last case. Sharma has been shot in the head, execution-style, and with the help of their pet policemen, the quartet are on the trail.
There’s lots of snappy dialogue and a razor sharp whodunit plot but that’s not the best of this superb book. Elizabeth is faced with the increasing decline of her husband, Stephen, who is slipping further into dementia. Stephen has played a role in all the books but, this time, it’s clear that his days are dwindling. Suitably, Elizabeth lets her three companions investigate Sharma’s death while she devotes herself to Stephen. The best bits in the book are Osman’s delicate portrayals of a couple’s love and Elizabeth’s grief over the loss of Stephen in life. I confess to some tears because Osman’s writing is simply that good.
As an added bonus, the setting is Christmas. This is the ideal stocking stuffer for anyone who loves mysteries but it’s also great for people who just love good writing.
The Last Dance, by Mark Billingham
Published by Sphere, 390 pages
The best news about this terrific novel is that it marks the debut of a new series by Mark Billingham, whose Thorne books have been fixtures on bestseller lists for more than 20 years. Detective Declan Miller is superb, original and, perhaps best of all, he’s a champion amateur ballroom dancer. So think of crime solving in waltz time.
We first meet Miller arriving at the station where someone has taken over his desk. He was intended to be on leave. Why? That’s answered quickly. Miller’s wife, a highly respected undercover policewoman, has been murdered. No clues. Signs point to one of two local gangs but nothing stands out. Meanwhile, Miller has a new partner to break in and a death to investigate. All the while, he’s lurking in the background of the investigation into his wife’s death, which by law, he’s not supposed to have any part in.
Where does dancing fit in? You’ll have to read this excellent book to find out but, trust me, it’s there and it’s original and exciting. Billingham never fails in his plots or characters and this new series is already a winner. Be warned, though. If you’re not already a Billingham devotee, the language is pretty wild and Miller, a compulsive talker, can be wilder still. I loved it.
The Manor House, by Gilly Macmillan
Published by HarperCollins, Canada, 336 pages
There are two manor houses in this thriller from the accomplished Gilly Macmillan (What She Knew, The Long Weekend), who knows how to keep the suspense moving. Both are located on an isolated peninsula on the Welsh border. One is musty, Victorian and full of secrets. The other is spanking new, full of technical marvels and a smashing architectural triumph. The hot new building belongs to Tom and Nicole, a working class couple who, literally, won the lottery. Life went from workaday to wonderful in a matter of weeks. Nicole still cant believe her luck.
This being a Gilly Macmillan novel, we know that you are going to beware of what you wish for because there are bad things happening. It all opens with Nicole in her gorgeous glass house with its stunning views and state-of-the-art speakers blasting music from every room. The music is unnecessary. The dead body is in the pool. This starts the action and Macmillan never lets up. There are a group of nice young people at the other manor, and a witchy Mrs. Danvers type housekeeper. Who is going to kill/cheat/defraud whom?
Penance, by Eliza Clark
Published by HarperCollins, 336 pages
You’ll find references to podcasts, personal journals, e-mails, tweets and plain old-fashioned reportage in Penance. It all works to fashion a quickly absorbed plot, but the characters – a group of young girls, a reporter in search of a hot exposé – are not likeable or even relatable. Yet I couldn’t put it down.
From the opening page, readers are not quite sure about the trustworthiness of the narrator – English journalist Alec Z. Carelli who is writing a true crime “factual” account of the 2016 murder of a schoolgirl in Crow, a small North Yorkshire seaside town. His work may indeed contain a whole lot of fiction. The murder of 16-year-old Joan Wilson, who was doused in petrol and set on fire after enduring several hours of torture, made headlines worldwide, especially since the killers were three teenage girls who pled guilty and were convicted. But why did they commit the crime; Carelli is there to tell you.
Clark attempts to combine pop culture with deep issues here, including female bullying, shunning and shaming. And she adds in touches of uniquely British class consciousness. All that works well. What didn’t work for me was the tweeting and twisting but I prefer my fiction in longhand. There’s no happy ending to this sad story but I didn’t put it down until the final page.