Category Archives: Thriller

The Pretender’s Gold by Scott Mariani

Avon | 2020 (28 May) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Pretender's Gold by Scott MarianiWhen Ross Campbell stumbles across a lost hoard of gold coins by Loch Ardaich in the Scottish Highlands, he finds himself in all sorts of trouble. He finds himself dead. People want those coins and they’ll stop at nothing to find them. That means they also go after Ross’s colleague, who turns out to be the nephew of one Boonzie McCulloch, a retired army sergeant who happens to be the close friend and mentor of Ben Hope. When Boonzie goes missing, Ben Hope immediately leaps into action, racing from his home in France to the wintry Highlands. All hell breaks loose. This is Ben Hope, after all.

In my opinion, and I know I’m right in this, Ben Hope is the greatest action hero you can find in fiction being written today and this is my favourite thriller series. I’ve reviewed these books for years and read them for much longer than that. I adore them and I love Ben. The Pretender’s Gold is the 21st in the series and I’m not surprised to say that it is fabulous and is among my favourites. As with all of these books, it stands alone very well but hopefully it might inspire you to go back and discover Ben’s earlier adventures.

I loved the setting for The Pretender’s Gold. Ben spends much of his time fighting baddies and righting wrongs across the globe, while his home – a farm where he and his team train forces to rescue hostages – is in France. This time he’s in Britain and the Scottish location is wonderful. There is a great deal of warmth in the descriptions of the Highlands and their people. You can feel the cold as Ben tramps across snowy hills and through frosty woods on the trail of an elite band of killers. The story is a good one, too, going back to a particularly interesting period of Scottish history. I’ve always enjoyed how these novels, to varying degrees, mix history and thrills.

Ben is a fantastic character. Hated by car rental companies and loved by whisky distillers, hating to kill but still very good at it, and almost unkillable but, we sense, not really. His past is chequered but for this novel he leaves much of that behind. His focus is on his old army friend Boonzie, who is quite a character in his own right. I loved spending time with him. We care for him and desperately want Ben to save the day.

At a time when I’m slow to read a book, I raced through The Pretender’s Gold. I read it during a dark time and it, and Ben Hope, was good company. These books are so well written. They’re exciting and exhilarating with just the right amount of humour. But there are also shadows. Ben might be an action hero but there is substance to him. He feels like an old friend to me and it was a joy to spend time with him once more. I can’t wait to rave about him again.

Other reviews
Ben Hope 7: The Sacred Sword
Ben Hope 8: The Armada Legacy
Ben Hope 9: The Nemesis Program
Ben Hope 10: The Forgotten Holocaust
Ben Hope 11: The Martyr’s Curse
Ben Hope 12: The Cassandra Sanction
Ben Hope 13: Star of Africa
Ben Hope 14: The Devil’s Kingdom
Ben Hope 15: The Babylon Idol
Ben Hope 16: The Bach Manuscript
Ben Hope 17: The Moscow Cipher
Ben Hope 18: The Rebel’s Revenge
Ben Hope 19: Valley of Death
Ben Hope 20: House of War

Double Agent by Tom Bradby

Bantam Press | 2020 (28 May) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Double Agent by Tom BradbyDouble Agent, the new thriller by well-known ITV news reporter Tom Bradby, follows directly on from Secret Service, which was published last year. Although Double Agent can be read as a stand alone, it does reveal everything that happened in the previous novel and also, I think, its impact would be much greater if you knew what had happened. So please do read Secret Service first. It is excellent. This review assumes you’ve done just that so do please step away if you don’t want to know anything about what has gone on.

Kate Henderson is a senior officer at M16 and the whole agency is in turmoil following recent events. Kate has been personally affected more than most and her home life is now as fragile as her career. She knows that she is barely hanging on. She can only sleep with the help of medication. She’s worried about her children and is grieving the loss of people close to her. Her therapist advises her to have a complete break from work. But she can’t. Nothing that happened before has gone away. It looks as if there may still be a Russian mole in the secret service. The same Russian spies are in touch again and this time they have more evidence to support the outrageous claims that a very senior British politician is a Russian spy. In return, the Russian spies wish to defect to the UK. But is it all true? Kate feels under attack, that she’s being watched, suspected. She has to discover the truth so that she can sleep at night. Her close friends at M16 support her but can they really be trusted? Can anyone be trusted, especially now when nothing feels safe?

Secret Service is such a fantastic thriller and I’m pleased to say that so, too, is Double Agent. It is different, though. This time Kate must deal with the dramatic fallout of previous events on the secret service, the government and on her own life, which has been transformed as a result. The focus is now fully on Kate Henderson, a woman of integrity and feeling, who has reached the end of her tether while still having to go that extra mile to discover a truth that may not be even knowable. She is driven while at the same time she is close to exhaustion. It’s an extremely powerful portrait by Tom Bradby. Kate is a fascinating character, fully three-dimensional, and she is also likeable.

We experience this shifty and shifting state of affairs through Kate’s perspective and that means that the people around her remain shady, untrustworthy and potentially sinister. There is also a new figure for Kate to deal with – Suzy from M15 who has been assigned to Kate as her Deputy but her motives are entirely unknown and Suzy herself is a complete enigma and a woman of many contradictions. That makes her very interesting to read about.

In the midst of this tense tale of spies and murder, there is the human tale of Kate and her family. I don’t want to go into that here because you really do need to know what happened in the first book, but I love the way that this is done, especially the portrayal of Kate’s fragile daughter.

There were a couple of moments in this book that made me shout out with shock. I actually did that. It’s not often a book catches me out. Double Agent does.

If you enjoy spy thrillers half as much as I do then you’ll really like these books and the characters within them. I love the fact that they deal with the old enemy – the Russians. We’re reminded of that Cold War past as Kate travels by train across Russia. I love all that – the atmosphere, the mood, the tension. Double Agent is an excellent spy thriller which complements Secret Service perfectly.

Other review
Secret Service

Three Perfect Liars by Heidi Perks

Century | 2020 (30 April) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

Three Perfect Liars by Heidi PerksLaura is a director in an advertising agency and she lives for her work and her clients. That all changed when she had a baby. She had thought that six months’ maternity leave would be enough but when the time comes for her to go back to her job she discovers it wasn’t nearly long enough. But her husband has given up his lesser paid job to be a stay at home dad and now they need her income. So she goes back to the office only to discover that Mia, her maternity cover, has more than got her foot under the door. She cannot be budged and suddenly Laura feels far from secure. But why won’t Mia leave when she had insisted that she had to move on at the end of the six months? And why does something feel not quite right about her? Is it just envy and hurt making Laura feel this way? Mia isn’t alone in not wanting Laura to return. Janie, the wife of Harry the boss, who gave up her high powered courtroom career to support her husband, doesn’t trust Laura and trusts Harry even less. And she has a secret that she wants none of them to discover.

Two months after Laura’s return, a fire devastates the office buildings. All three women are the police’s chief suspects and each is questioned along with their colleagues. DC Emily Marlow knows that they’re all lying to her. But which of them started the fire?

Three Perfect Liars is a stand alone psychological thriller that I could not put down. This isn’t often the case for me, especially at the moment, but I was so easily able to lose myself in this story. I had thought before beginning that the fact that the committed crime is arson might not be enough to hold my attention but this was totally unfounded. The crime is an intriguing one and sets the frame for the story but the heart of this book is not about the fire itself but about the relationship between these three women, Laura, Mia and Janie. And I found all three of them so beautifully drawn by Heidi Perks and I was invested in all three.

Laura is a fantastic creation and it’s so easy to feel for her situation. I’ve been on the other side, covering maternity leave twice and there are elements of this that can be quite difficult, and it’s impossible not to sympathise with Laura who feels that the ground has been swept from under her feet while, on the other hand, she longs to do nothing more than spend time with her son and husband. The situation threatens both her sanity and her marriage. But Mia isn’t the baddie of the piece. She has her own story to tell and the more we get to know her the more we feel for her, too. The same with Janie. The secrets that each hides are deeply involving for the reader, exploring the burdens that some people must bear and hide.

Harry is at the centre of these women’s lives, for good and bad, and everything revolves around him. He is nothing like the women. He is weak, vain and seemingly intentionally obtuse. His life is the contrast to those of the women, including his wife. He surrounds himself by men. Laura was the only female director on the company’s board. There is a culture in his firm that isn’t good.

The novel moves between Laura, Mia and Janie and regularly through the pages are the typescripts of Marlow’s interviews with Harry’s employees. This is brilliantly done and really upped the intrigue and the pace. Everything moves forward, compellingly, until the night of the fire.

I’ve enjoyed Heido Perks’ novels before. She writes very well and creates wonderful characters. Without a doubt, though, Three Perfect Liars is her best to date and I can thoroughly recommend it.

Other review
Now You See Her

Curse the Day by Judith O’Reilly

Head of Zeus | 2020 (2 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Curse the Day by Judith O'ReillyWhen Esme Hawke is attacked in her own home and kills her assailant in self-defence, her uncle is determined to keep her safe. Because he knows this won’t be the last time an attempt is made on her life. Her husband Tobias is the genius boss of the Derkind Institute. He is the creator of ‘Syd’, which represents a breakthrough in Artificial Intelligence. Syd mimics human thought and has the ability to learn. Esme isn’t the only one to be fearful of what Syd can do if released from its confinement within the Institute’s machines. Others want control. Esme is a target and so too is Tobias. Michael North, an ex-assassin with a bullet in his brain, is forced to take the case, to keep Esme safe at all costs, and he must do that with the help of teenage genius hacker Fangfang. Then Tobias is murdered. It was his moment of glory. Now North must save Esme and contain Syd. But, most of all, North must keep Fangfang safe.

Curse the Day is the second thriller to feature Michael North but I don’t think you need to have read the first one to enjoy this. I hadn’t read the first and it didn’t affect my reading. The author reintroduces us to her characters and we’re quick to get to know them, especially the charismatic, fatalistic North and the immensely likeable and troubled Fangfang. These two people, each so different, are made for each other. They are tied together. And it’s that relationship which gives Curse the Day such a resonance. North has very little in his life so, what he has, he will die, and kill for, to protect.

These are great characters but even more memorable are the fantastic action sequences. The opening of the thriller is electric and so, too, is the scene in which North arrives back in the UK. This is exciting stuff! The story is entertaining and the baddies as bad as you’d like. Most of all, though, I loved Fangfang and enjoyed Michael North’s background (ie the bullet in the head), which makes him very different from other action heroes. I do love action thrillers and so I’m pleased to discover a new hero to get to know.

Forgive the short review. My mind isn’t working as well as it might due to everything that’s going on, with me personally and with the world. Thanks to everyone for the kind messages. It’s really appreciated.

The Last Odyssey by James Rollins

WIlliam Morrow | 2020 (16 April) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Odyssey by James RollinsA Greenland glacier shifts and, when a large piece of it detaches, an astonishing discovery is made. Buried within the glacier for centuries is a medieval ship, perfectly preserved. When researchers examine it they find an incredible treasure, an elaborate mechanical map that, if made to work, will trace the ancient path of Odysseus from Troy to the gates of Tartarus, the Greek name for Hell. The ship contains other wonders, too, but these are terrifying remnants of that Hell, which, once awoken, will unleash a fiery catastrophe. The scientists have no time to explore. Other agents want control of the map and the demons that Tartarus hides.

Nautical archaeologist Dr Elena Cargill is one of the scientists investigating the ship. When the attack comes, she is captured. Her role now is to help the enemy make the map work and lead them to the goal. But they made a mistake when they took Elena because she is the close friend of Maria, the partner of Joe Kowalski, and when they go in search of her they bring with them the might of Joe’s organisation, Sigma, an elite covert group whose exploits are the stuff of legend. The adventure will take them across the Mediterranean and beyond as they follow the voyage of Odysseus into the jaws of Hell. It will be one of their most deadly missions.

I am a huge fan of James Rollins and have read every one of his thrillers over more years than I care to count. Arguably, his most popular novels are his Sigma thrillers and in 2020 we have the fifteenth, The Last Odyssey. I was so excited to receive a review copy and read it the moment it arrived. I never hang around with these books. I can’t resist them. The winning formula returns – we have a global adventure in which Painter Crowe’s force of men and women must face overwhelming odds, and the deadliest of traps in the most striking locations, to avert the evil designs of sinister forces, all written by the master of tension and thrills. Although this is the fifteenth novel, they can all be read as standalones but if you’ve read them all then you’ll be as deeply invested in our group of heroes as I am.

As is often the case, there is a historical element to the plot, with Leonardo de Vinci making an appearance as well as other medieval figures. One of the reasons why I enjoy this series so much is that there is also often a scientific aspect and we have that here. It all adds up to an entertaining adventure which is backed up with ideas and research which makes it all seem just that little bit possible.

The main draw of this series though is the group of characters. I’ve grown attached to them all over the years. In this novel, we have most of the members of Sigma taking part but the focus is on Kowalski and his relationship with Maria, and on Seichan, perhaps the most intriguing of all of Sigma, who is now having to adapt to motherhood. I love the way in which James Rollins writes these characters. The action is hung on to them but there is also time for reflection.

I really enjoyed The Last Odyssey. The locations are great! I loved the historical background to the novel as we embark on a modern Odyssey across the Mediterranean, with some twists and shocks along the way. The action set pieces are fantastic and the baddies are satisfyingly evil. Excellent! I look forward to a new Sigma thriller every year. Long may they continue!

Other reviews
The Devil Colony
The Eye of God
The Bone Labyrinth
The Seventh Plague
The Demon Crown
With Grant Blackwood: War Hawk
With Rebecca Cantrell:
The Blood Gospel (The Order of the Sanguines 1)
Innocent Blood (The Order of the Sanguines 2)
Blood Infernal (The Order of the Sanguines 3)

Power Play by Tony Kent

Elliott and Thompson | 2020 (16 April) | 496p | Review copy | Buy the book

Power Play by Tony KentA Boeing 747 blows up on its way from London to the US. Over 500 people are killed instantly in this horrendous act of terror. But then it is reported that the controversial and popular US presidential candidate Dale Victor was aboard the plane. Elizabeth Kirk, director of the International Security Bureau based in New York, is immediately suspicious. Victor had threatened in his most recent speech that he knew something about the incumbent President Knowles that, if widely known, would destroy the President’s high popularity rating and his whole career. Kirk knows what the secret is and she suspects the worse – that the plane might have been brought down by an agency far closer to home than a Middle Eastern terrorist group. She calls in one of her agents, Joe Dempsey, and sets him off on a trail of clues that will lead him to the very heart of the American government. The journey will be lethal.

Meanwhile, the British police believe they have the man responsible for planting the bomb but the officer in charge isn’t so sure. Michael Devlin is given the job of defending Nizar Mansour but that’s if the case even gets to court. Somebody wants Mansour dead at all costs, and not just him, but everyone associated with him, including Michael. There is no-one to trust, only his friend Dempsey in the US and Dempsey has a deadly fight of his own on his hands.

Power Play is the third thriller by Tony Kent to feature three fantastic characters – Joe Dempsey, Michael Devlin and journalist Sarah Truman. Each novel features all three but with a different focus. In Power Play the spotlight is on Joe Dempsey as he takes on the American secret service. But we also spend plenty of time with Michael and Sarah as they try and uncover the truth behind Mansour’s story. This also gives us the welcome distraction of the relationship between Michael and Sarah, which is now becoming very serious in such a good way. But some of the most tense moments of the novel come when Michael realises that his own life is in danger as well, plus the scenes when we spend time with Mansour. The contrast between the danger on the London streets and the political turmoil that Dempsey uncovers in the US is really well done. Both are appealing while being very different.

The story is great and it thrills on so many levels. The concept is staggering and Power Play more than lives up to its premise. It’s full of surprises and shocks and is immensely sinister at times. I really enjoy political thrillers and this is one of the best ones I’ve read. This isn’t just because Tony Kent writes so well – and he writes really well! – but because I feel thoroughly engaged with these characters. It’s good to spend more time with Joe Dempsey. He can be difficult to know but now we’re given bigger glimpses into his private life, his home and his past. He’s an interesting man.

Tony Kent is a brilliant thriller writer, as we’ve seen in Killer Intent and Marked for Death. Each of the books stand alone, despite the developing relationships in them, so you could definitely enjoy Power Play without having read the others but each of these books is such a treat for thriller fans. They are packed with action! The stories are fabulous. There is so much going on and each book is made all the more rich by the fact that it divides between our three characters. I’ve been having some trouble settling with books due to the situation we’re all facing but Power Play was the perfect reading choice for me. It is extremely difficult to put down and it is immensely rewarding. I’m being strict with my rewards of five stars this year but Power Play deserves every one of them.

Other reviews
Killer Intent
Marked for Death

Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins

Quercus | 2020 (2 April) | 354p | Review copy | Buy the book

Magpie Lane by Lucy AtkinsDee becomes a person of interest to the police when 8-year-old Felicity disappears from her Oxford home. Dee is Felicity’s nanny and Felicity is no ordinary child. She is the daughter of Nick, the new high-profile Master of one of Oxford’s colleges, and the stepdaughter of Nick’s glamorous and pregnant Danish wife, Mariah. Felicity is selectively mute. She hardly ever speaks and, when she does, it’s only to her father and never to Mariah. But now she speaks to Dee, the Scottish nanny who feels drawn to this strange child, who collects bones and other creepy things, arranging them in enigmatic patterns on her bedroom floor, to keep her safe from the ghosts she believes haunts her home, an old college building with a past. Dee joins forces with a curious and eccentric house historian, Linklater, to try and help Felicity understand what secrets the house hides. This is Dee’s side of the story and when Felicity vanishes what are the police to think?

I was so excited to read Magpie Lane and for two very good reasons. I loved Lucy Atkins’ previous novel The Night Visitor, with its gorgeously told creepy tale of the relationship between a writer and the housekeeper of a manor house. Secondly, Magpie Lane is set in my hometown of Oxford. I know well the lane, with its infamous history, that names the novel and I love where this book takes us – into the old colleges, the back lanes and alleys, the hidden churchyards, as well as into its stuffy and old traditions. This can be a claustrophobic place, especially if you’re not used to it and are unfamiliar with Oxford’s ‘town and gown’ divisions. For all its faults, this is the Oxford I know and love and, although it’s stifling at times, it is also so beautiful and so full of history.

This Oxford is exactly what Lucy Atkins captures in Magpie Lane. Dee is an outsider, just like Nick and Mariah, and they resist its charm. Mariah removes all of the portraits of men’s heads from their lodgings. Nick is a television figure and an unpopular Master. He isn’t one to cope with the restrictions of his college’s Governing Body. He and Mariah see their stay in Oxford to be transitory, and so, too, does Dee. She’s reluctant to take the job at all. But then she falls for Felicity and Linklater comes along, a man who couldn’t be more steeped in Oxford tradition and history if he tried. He is almost part of its buildings, forgotten and neglected by the city that he has felt unable to escape. The descriptions of Oxford and its hidden places are so gorgeously done. I especially enjoyed the pages we spend exploring the quiet and secret churchyards, where so many familiar and significant figures rest unnoticed.

Felicity is a part of this world. Although this is on one level a missing child crime novel, that’s not really what Magpie Lane is about. This is the story of Dee, Felicity and Linklater, as told by Dee. There is a strong supernatural feel to it. There are moments that are genuinely disturbing. Felicity herself is the novel’s haunted child, while her home makes for a perfect haunted house. Linklater is almost the exorcist. Dee herself is a mystery. Glimpses of her past are revealed throughout and this is complemented by the questioning from the police, one of whom is intriguingly named Faraday (Dee really does seem to be inside a Faraday cage at times), which makes the reader also ask questions about the truth of what Dee has told us. Each chapter begins and ends with more of the interrogation, again told by Dee to us. In between the questions, Dee reveals more about her relationship with Felicity, Linklater and Felicity’s parents. It is utterly engrossing and not a little creepy.

Linklater is my favourite character of the novel. What a wonderful creation he is! He is completely eccentric, almost humorously so, but he also feels like a tragic character to me. He, too, is stuck in a cage, like Dee and like Felicity. I enjoyed his presence in the novel very much indeed.

Magpie Lane is such a delight. It’s clever, always beautifully written and its characters are all enormously involving, even Nick and especially Mariah, his wife who slowly unravels before our eyes. It’s a puzzle to work out as we try and understand Dee while we fall deeply for the troubled Felicity, just as Dee does. And all the time we’re reminded of the past forcing its way into the present. The past surrounds and fills this house. Lucy Atkins captures the atmosphere and chills of this perfectly, making Magpie Lane an irresistible and always entertaining read.

Other review
The Night Visitor