Ed Malik, a complicated man whose heritage is drawn from both east and west, is an agent runner for M16, focused on Pakistan and Afghanistan. Ten years after 9/11, these are dangerous times. The hunt for Osama Bin Laden is reaching a close; the trap is almost set. Malik runs an agent known as Nightingale who is placed at the heart of ISI, Pakistan’s secret spy network, but in the aftermath of Bin Laden’s capture and execution Nightingale is shot in the head, killed by a senior member of ISI. The cloak is lifted. Ed becomes known to Major-General Javid Aslam Khan, otherwise known as the Hidden Hand, Pakistan’s spy master, legendary and lethal.
With his cover blown, Ed is dismissed from M16 and has no choice but to create a new life for himself in London, working in the private sector, keeping what links he can with Pakistan. Matters are complicated when Ed falls for Leyla, his new boss’s daughter, an extraordinary young woman and a magnet for danger. But Ed cannot forget Nightingale, finding himself drawn back to the mountains of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush, an area ruled by anarchic tribal chiefs, a place to which Khan and his henchmen are also drawn and where the most terrible of plots are hatched and born.
The Agent Runner is a spy thriller that barely takes time to draw breath. At under 300 pages, it can be read easily in one or two days and this adds to the pace created by the novel’s movement across London, Lahore, Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush. The action moves between people as well as places, between Ed Malik and Khan and his agents, most especially Noman, a man who has taken to extremes the skills of torture and inquisition, but the reader is kept a step or two behind throughout. There is no one in this novel without secrets, not even Leyla is innocent.
If there were one word I had to use to describe The Agent Runner it would be tense. This is an edge of the seat read. But I would also describe it as tragic. The characters are the product of horrendous events and hatred and few emerge unscathed. Ed is damaged – the fate of Nightingale is never forgotten – and his drive for vengeance is at odds with the other part of him that wants peace. But we are never allowed deep enough into Ed’s thoughts to know what he really wants. He’s a sympathetic character but he remains unknowable. Khan on the other hand is the bogeyman, the monster – although he has a rival in Noman. There are some truly chilling moments, especially those that circle around suicide bombers. We are never allowed to forget what a frightening world this is. And it is a violent world from which Simon Conway doesn’t flinch.
I thoroughly enjoyed Simon Conway’s Rock Creek Park and, while The Agent Runner is a very different type of thriller, set a world away from the events and themes of Rock Creek Park, taking this reader at least into unfamiliar and disturbing territory, it is a powerful read from start to finish.
Rock Creek Park