Wicked Game | Matt Johnson | 2016 (this edn) | Orenda Books | 392p | Review copy | Buy the book
The year is 2001. Police inspector Robert Finlay works as a protection officer for the British royal family, a role that demands irregular hours and prolongued absences. This might not have mattered so much before but now Finlay and his wife Jenny have a young daughter whose birth Finlay almost missed. Finlay makes the decision to move back into conventional policing and he is given a post in the busy station at Stoke Newington in London. But there is to be nothing conventional about what lies in store for Finlay in his new role. London is being terrorised by a small unit of bombers and their targets are policemen. What’s even worse is that Finlay knows the victims. It doesn’t matter how much he – and M15 – tried to keep his and the other victims’ pasts buried but now the truth is out there. Finlay was an officer in the SAS, party to some of their most difficult and sensitive missions in Northern Ireland, London and elsewhere. And someone from that past wants Finlay dead.
Bill Grahamslaw is Commander of SO13, the unit in charge of the investigation into the terrorist attacks. It’s soon clear to him that Finlay holds the answer to the mystery of how the police victims are connected. But as Grahamslaw watches, Finlay appears to develop his own agenda. In order to protect his life and, far more importantly, the lives of his wife and child, there is nothing Finlay won’t do. Finlay has no intention of attending more funerals or being in the box himself. He is going to find the terrorists before they find him. And to do that he must first find out why they want him dead and strike before Grahamslaw stops him in his tracks and throws him in a cell.
Wicked Game is a chilling, exhilarating thriller, written by an author who clearly knows what he’s writing about. Matt Johnson served as a soldier and a police officer in London and witnessed terrorist atrocities first hand. Writing this novel was part of Johnson’s recovery. The result is a thriller that lays before us a cat and mouse chase with the deadliest of consequences. The book combines the first person narrative of Finlay with the third person perspectives of Grahamslaw and the terrorists. This works extremely well. We’re made party to Finlay’s increasing fears about his safety and that of his family, as well as his confusion as to why the past has caught up with him. But Finlay doesn’t reveal it all. There is much left hidden. There are surprises in store.
The details of the plot, the investigation and Finlay’s pursuit of the killers are all presented with clinical, almost dispassionate thoroughness. The same meticulousness is used in the sections which present scenes from Finlay’s past in the SAS. These chapters help build up the man, as well as the case, and although they are presented cold they are hugely fascinating. Terrorist murder is not committed in the heat of the moment – it is meticulously planned. Nothing is left to chance. It’s up to Finlay and Grahamslaw to find the errors.
The case is so intriguing, full of red herrings and twists, highlighting years of service by Finlay and his team, the trail of potential enemies left behind. This is in some ways a spy novel, with tantalising glimpses of M15 and Home Office interference. Above all else, though, Wicked Game is a tense, exciting thriller that presents the gigantic effort of Finlay to keep his family safe, trying to rediscover physical and military skills long put to rest, and facing seemingly insurmountable odds. The ending is stunning! First published in 2012 and now picked up by Orenda Books, in Wicked Game Matt Johnson has created a fine heroic figure in Robert Finlay, a man that I cared for, and I look forward to seeing what lies in store for him next.