A Tale of Two Thrillers

Despite working an exhausting 65 hours last week, somehow I found time to knock off two books, both thrillers. One thrilled, one disappointed.

Stella Rimington was head spook at MI5, so she presumably knows how The Game is played. I’d enjoyed her first novel, At Risk, a fairly standard spy thriller featuring female intelligence officer Liz Carlisle. So I figured the second Carlisle tale would be worth a read.

Alas, Secret Asset is disappointing.

The main theme is a nice new twist — an IRA mole doesn’t disappear quietly once The Troubles die down, but instead decides to “screw the Brits” generally with the aid of some Pakistanis. And the pacey writing kept me reading.

But there’s a difference between archetype and stereotype — and the supporting characters are stereotypes. Resident geek-spook “Technical Ted” has a ponytail and swoons into a virtual orgasm when challenged to read data from ancient floppy discs. And the analyst on loan from MI6 is bookish, a former librarian even. The ending’s a cop-out too — but I won’t spoil it.

What grated most, though, were the wave-the-flag patriotic moments. Sohail, a Pakistani law student, for instance, was reading English Torts: A Casebook:

He liked the precision and arid tautness of its prose. The book was almost theoretical in its abstraction, but unlike the Islamic literature he was surrounded by during the day, English law seemed incapable of perversion in the hands of fanatics.

Oh please! The Empire saved by the OED? OK, it’s standard practice for “retired” spooks to add to the propaganda pool, but a little subtlety might be in order from one of The Greats.

Still, Stella kept me moderately amused before bedtime two nights in a row, which at $32.95 is cheaper than a hooker. The Liz Carlisle stories will make excellent fodder for ABC TV’s Friday night sessions.

By comparison, John Birmingham did thrill me with Final Impact because it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than cheap trashy action — and it’s a bloody fine example of the genre.

“Birmingham’s an arsehole,” I used to think — another story for another time. Now I’ve read all but one of his books and loved each and every one.

Final Impact is the third (final?) Axis of Time novel, set in an alternate World War II where a 21st Century naval task force — replete with stealth ships, multicultural crews and nukes — finds itself at the Battle of Midway.

Yes, the “contemporary war-fighters do The Time Warp” trope has been done before. But this is a well-crafted yarn, following on nicely from Weapons of Choice and Designated Targets. Where those books cover the initial “Emergence” and then the issues facing the integration of the 21C and WWII forces, Final Impact is the end-play and the Race for The Bomb — with plenty of surprises along the way.

Birmingham scatters the books with quirky references — Prince Harry as an SAS colonel — and even has Himmler cracking jokes! As the SS supremo struggles to work his high-tech “flexipad” he finds…

… the Windows file management system a diabolical confoundment. And they accuse me of crimes against humanity, he thought as he settled himself at his desk. Willhelm Gates, you are a beast and your family will pay.

Sure, it’s all Boy’s Own action with plenty of technical detail and blood’n’gore. But that’s what the genre is about. And it’s appropriate that Time compares him favourably with the genre master Tom Clancy.

As it happens, today is John Birmingham’s birthday. So what better cheapskate present than to tell him, “Mate, loved your book. Two thumbs up.”

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