Duckworth | 2019 (27 June) | 321p | Review copy | Buy the book
Dr Sakiko Tsuda of Bristol University, a linguist chasing an archaeological mystery, disappears without trace in the heart of the Congo. Her colleague, Professor Randolph Harkness, believes she was on the verge of a discovery that could overturn the world’s understanding of the evolution of modern man and the exodus of the first humans from Africa and Asia. This is a discovery, though, shrouded in conspiracy and Sakiko has paid the price. Harkness, along with Ross McCartney, the troubled young son of a friend, is determined to find her. And so they set off on an adventure that will take them across Africa and Europe, into a deadly world of assassins and spies.
But Randolph and Ross aren’t alone in being caught up in the mystery of the most distant past – another academic, one who specialises in the development of language, is on the run, her husband cruelly tortured. And in London a very unpopular MP is about to become a pawn in a game she can’t hope to win. Furious, Gloria Hastings sets out to get her own back. What she discovers will pull the ground out from beneath her feet.
The Killing Gene is a fantastic thriller! It’s not often that you come across a clever, well-researched anthropological thriller that is every bit as exciting as it is intelligent. There are some grand claims made here but they are all backed up, with discussions of the archaeological and linguistic record – all placed lightly or effectively into the prose. It’s an enormous puzzle, with some pieces missing, others tantalisingly close, and the others completely mixed up and guarded by killers who prefer to shoot first and never ask questions. The added extra of the political spy thread fits in really well. The contrast between the remote jungle and the men’s clubs and parliament gatherings of London couldn’t be more striking, but the dangers both pose are surprisingly equal.
What I really loved about The Killing Gene is its characterisation. This book is populated by a number of people that are so wonderfully depicted that I cared deeply for them. Making it even more intense is the realisation that these are not superhuman or indestructible human beings. They are indeed made of flesh and blood and they will not all make it. They seem aware of this, leading to moments of desperate humour as well as other moments when they cling to one another. This all means that, while there is laughter (this is a witty book at times), there are also tears. Ross McCartney is a particularly loveable character and the fact that he has just been told that he is going blind hangs over everything. These are not your typical thriller characters.
And then there’s Gloria Hastings, a kind of composite Tory leadership contender. She is odious. But, against all odds, I actually warmed to her. Again, she felt real, flawed and vulnerable. There are some really well done little moments in the way that E.M. Davey establishes her character.
At the beginning of the novel I was slightly confused by the number of characters and threads but this didn’t last as I soon got used to who was who and who was where. I love the locations, the way that the author pulls in some of the local history for each of these places. The author has visited the locations. This research really pays off.
The Killing Gene is such an engrossing, character-led thriller. It’s thoroughly exciting, it’s fascinating, it’s horrifying and it is also tender and sad. I really enjoyed the adventure of it all. I grimaced at some of the gore – bits are very gorey – and I sat riveted by the mystery itself. It is one of the best thrillers I’ve read in a while. Excellent!