The old adage that everyone has a novel in them has a new version: anyone can write a thriller. Celebrity helps, of course, and Bill and Hillary Clinton are exemplars of the trend, though each has had the sense to draw on professional assistance and the grace to acknowledge it. Closer to home, Britain has spawned its own unexpected authors, led by Richard Osman with his astonishing successful The Thursday Murder Club.
Now Alan Johnson, the former Labour MP and cabinet minister, joins the club with The Late Train to Gipsy Hill (Headline, £16.99), his first foray into fiction. He arrives with impressive credentials, however, having published three excellent volumes of memoirs since leaving politics. Like them, this book is well written, if less affecting.
After a meeting in a Pimlico hotel, a Russian documentary maker named Smolnikov dies from a lethal dose of polonium that’s been administered to the wrong man’s coffee. From this startling opening, we’re introduced to a more placid protagonist, an unprepossessing young man called Gary Nelson. He’s in search of excitement that is proving elusive, both in his humdrum job and in the tepid evenings spent with flatmates in a Pooterish part of south London.
Then a chance encounter with a woman he has admired from afar transforms his life. Arina is a beautiful Ukrainian immigrant, and the hotel waitress who has accidentally poisoned Smolnikov. Pursued by vengeful thugs from the Russian mafia, she turns impulsively to Gary for help, and together they go on the run.
All this is deftly handled, and Johnson is good at capturing daily London life. The romance that develops between Gary and Arina has more than a whiff of schmaltz about it, but for the most part avoids descending into cloying ‘cutesy crime’. The Russian-related aspects of the plot are too complicated, and it’s difficult to distinguish the Miranchuks from the Rubchenkos. But the writing and pacing are accomplished, and Johnson has made a fine addition to his new career as a writer.
Gil Peck, the first-person narrator of Robert Peston’s fictional debut, is a first-rate journalist with a second-rate life. As The Whistle Blower (Zaffre, £14.99) opens, his sister, a senior Treasury civil servant, is killed in a bicycle accident. She has been the apple of her parents’ eyes, though their son, they make clear, is essentially a disappointment (Peck must be the only Jewish man in the western world whose mother doesn’t love him.) But it’s easy to see why. At his sister’s funeral he proves more interested in pursuing a scoop and, later, sleeping with his girlfriend.
Set in the weeks before Labour’s landslide victory in 1997, the novel presents some obvious real-life models for identity games, but the story works well on its own. Alerted to oddities in his sibling’s ‘accidental’ death, Peck begins to explore them, uncovering a secret life that involves the great and the good between his sister’s sheets. Villains emerge in various guises, including an unscrupulous media magnate who seems part Maxwell, part Murdoch and all monster. The minor characters, often neglected in thrillers, are particularly well done, as are the various London settings.
But ultimately what makes The Whistle Blower distinctive is not the mystery it solves but its portrayal of Peck’s world of work and his driving passion for his job. The climax of the novel is action-filled, frenzied and — as with all political thrillers of note — a little preposterous. The combination makes for an exciting, satisfying read.
By contrast, Anne Glenconner has written a quieter book. Like her first thriller, Murder on Mustique, A Haunting at Holkham (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99) draws on the personal history she wrote about with such effect in her memoir Lady in Waiting. The story unfolds in two distinct times for the protagonist (also called Anne): as a child in 1943, and in 1950, after her grandfather, the 6th Earl of Leicester, is found dead at the foot of the cellar stairs in Holkham Hall, Norfolk. The teenaged Anne is suspicious about his death and, encouraged by a resident artist (a somewhat unlikely communist), starts to investigate. Her digging alternates with flashbacks to her happy wartime life when she was first sent to live at Holkham with her grandfather — until the experience was soured by the arrival of Lavender Crane, a nanny-cum-governess and psychotic sadist. The story’s main hero is the magnificent house of the title, and if the book is unlikely to figure on Jeremy Corbyn’s Christmas list it will certainly give pleasure to many readers.
Andrew Ewart brings no celebrity to his second novel, Replace You (Orion, £9.99), but makes his mark nonetheless. His novel dips into other genres — cyber stories and futuristic fantasy fiction — but that should not deter. Told largely by Mya Dala, the story begins in a psychiatric unit after her second suicide attempt. One morning she comes across live footage of her boyfriend walking with another woman. Or is the woman herself? Her efforts to find out unleash a series of explanatory memories: the trauma caused by her mother’s early death; Mya’s attendance at the ‘academy’ run by her father, a cult-like leader who seems both charlatan and sage; and her romance with Marco, an ex-boxer struggling with his own mental demons.
The world of Replace You is always slightly surreal and sometimes downright weird, but the odd pairing of Mya and Marco becomes utterly compelling. Ewart could have lost 50 pages without much complaint, but his writing throughout is a rich mix of fluency and sheer esprit.