Saturday, February 23, 2013

Thrillers – review roundup

Ratlines by Stuart Neville, Ghostman by Roger Hobbs, The Red Moth by Sam Eastland, The Fifth Assassin by Brad Meltzer, The Jackal's Share by Chris Morgan Jones

Uncovering secrets ... Tsar Nicholas II's fictional former personal detective features in The Red Moth. Photograph: Str/EPA

ratlinesRatlines are the small ropes that form a ladder from a boat to the shore. Figuratively, however, they're the means by which Nazis secured sanctuary in sympathetic countries after the war – countries such as Ireland, where hatred of the British spawned tolerance of Germans, no matter how heinous their crimes. Stuart Neville's latest, Ratlines (Harvill Secker, £12.99), is a stand alone thriller set in Ireland in 1963 on the eve of a visit from JFK. Former Nazis are being picked off one by one. Future taoiseach Charles Haughey, then minister for justice, asks Lieutenant Albert Ryan of the directorate of intelligence to deal with the matter "out of the public gaze".
Neville's excellent previous novels won him acclaim but, one assumes, unspectacular sales, in the UK at least. (America has embraced him wholeheartedly: The Twelve won the Mystery/Thriller category of the Los Angeles Times Book prize.) Ratlines' more commercial shape and texture is evident in the fast pace and short chapters, but also in the straightforwardly heroic character of Ryan. He's laconic but bright and more cultured than he lets on; an outsider who outraged his community by fighting for the Allies; dutiful and focused, but with the confidence to go maverick when appropriate; and physically inviolable, except when he's strapped down and tortured.
Chief Nazi Otto Skorzeny, who does most of said torturing, is a bit of a pantomime villain, and Ratlines is unlikely to flood you with supernatural dread in the way The Twelve and Collusion did. But Neville's writing is agile and atmospheric, and he has fun peppering the novel with allusions to James Bond – including a red-headed femme fatale straight out of Thunderball – and creating a memorable monster in slippery, belligerent Haughey.

ghostmanRyan is a reminder of the traction Jack Reacher still possesses as a character-meme. That's also evident in 24-year-old Roger Hobbs' astonishing debut. If the measure of a genre writer is how well he handles that genre's mandatory cliches, then Hobbs is up there with the best. I don't think I've read a better botched heist than the one that begins Ghostman (Doubleday, £9.99). It's a masterpiece of hyper‑kinetic blocking and deep, vivid detail. I say "botched" – the surviving thief escaped with $1.2m, which is why someone has called "Jack" (not his real name): an off-grid, untraceable career criminal who must work against the clock to recover the loot for his old friend/boss Marcus. Warners have bought the film rights and Hobbs, who wrote Ghostman's first draft in the summer between his junior and senior years at college, is already at work on the screenplay…

The other three titles

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