by Stephen Leather
Hodder & Stoughton, HK$330
In the thriller world, there is a convincing argument that pace is everything. A thriller must clip along steadily at the right tempo: too slow and it risks losing its sense of adventure and suspense. Too quick and the book starts to read jumpily and confusion arises. But if an author does it right, if he is able to hold the interest of the general reader while telling an interesting story, he has walked the tightrope.
Author and former South China Morning Post journalist Stephen Leather manages this feat in his new thriller Dead Men, the latest in his series involving Dan 'Spider' Shepherd, a civilian undercover operative with the Serious Organised Crime Agency.
The book begins with a gruesome scene 12 years before, when five men storm a policeman's house and kill him in front of his wife and son. The single scene is enough to move the book into the present, when Shepherd is moved onto a case involving the murders of these same men who were set free after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement between the British and Irish governments.
There is a parallel storyline at play. A wealthy man in the Middle East is seeking revenge on a British woman and an American man, the two people he holds primarily responsible for the death of his sons. The stories eventually twist together, but how, when or in what capacity is for the reader to figure out. Both storylines, however, provide enough complexity and personnel for Leather to drive the plot onwards and still be able to introduce a character at about page 200. While this may seem like a trifling detail one has to appreciate Leather's planning; it is not easy to bring into a play a significant and believable character so late in the game.
Leather's chapters are crisply written, action-packed and do not blunder on with meaningless, flowery details. Each nugget of action is digestible, leaving the book easy to read in long spurts or on rush-hour, standing-room-only trips on the MTR.
There is a certain sense of globalisation at play with characters from England, Ireland, America, the Muslim world and Russia. Rich Saudis factor in, as do extremists born and raised in Britain.
Dead Men stands by some of the conventions of the thriller genre. Going into the book there are expectations that a dangerous plot will be thwarted and that the hero will survive. But there are enough about-turns to make the guessing game last.