29 June 2016

The London Cage

Image from fledglingpress.co.uk
The London Cage
Mark Leggatt
Fledgling Press, 29 June 2016
PB, 399pp
Source: Advance copy from the publisher (thank you!)

A man who doesn’t exist discovers a weapon that doesn’t exist. The retreat of the glaciers has revealed a Cold War secret that should have lain buried for centuries, with the power to bring down the communications and defence systems of every country on the planet. Including his own. He is faced with the choice of betrayal or survival, but either way, he’ll lose.

Then an old man tells you, “If I had the choice between betraying my friends and betraying my country, I should hope I have the guts to betray my country.” Your country needs you, but if you give up the secret, your friends and those you love will die.

The second Connor Montrose thriller from Mark Leggatt is guaranteed to have you on the edge of your seat.

One of the really nice things about blogging book reviews is the opportunity to see and read books from new authors and small presses which otherwise it would be so easy to miss among the flood of published books - tens of thousands a year I gather.

Some of those authors are clearly going somewhere, and I'd include Mark Leggatt in that group. For sheer, knuckle-clenching, relentless action and thrills to compare with The London Cage I think you'd have to go a long, long way.

Essentially an extended chase, the story begins with Connor Montrose conducting surveillance in a London restaurant for his shadowy boss Pilgrim. Pilgrim has close links to British intelligence, yet seems to run his own operation. Perhaps he's doing the spooks' behest but deniably? Or maybe he's a player in some way which requires him to stand apart? Either way, he's happy to employ Connor who became a marked man in Leggatt's last book, Names of the Dead, high on every CIA watch list from here to Kabul.

However, this history comes back to bite both Connor and Pilgrim when the operation goes badly wrong. A man is killed and Connor is on the run, with the CIA on his heels in the person of the unspeakably vile Kane. It's soon clear he will do anything to nail Connor, who seems have put a spoke in some operation Kane had under way (it is some time before we learn exactly what is going on here - there are secrets within secrets, as you'd expect in this kind of novel).

So the mayhem spreads across London, with shootings, explosions, car chases, low flying helicopters, speedboats, the works. To a degree one has to suspend disbelief here. Working in central London I know just how tightly things are locked down after even a minor incident: what goes on here would have the Tubes, the buses and most public buildings in lockdown, yet Connor and his colleague Kirsty basically weave their way amongst the general public with normal life seeming to go on undisturbed. But I can forgive the book that for its sheer narrative drive and meticulous plotting - the way that Leggatt has thought through what happens and makes it, in each moment, perfectly credible, for example rarely or never resorting to coincidence or luck to bring his heroes through.

One also has to suspend disbelief at some of the character interactions. Kane is pretty nasty but rather a 2D baddie, and his debates with the MI5 team (who are apparently working for him) and especially their polarised US-UK hostility need I think to be taken with a pinch of salt, as does the Russian ambassador in his brief appearance.

No matter. These are minor things as most of the focus is on Connor and Kirsty - who between them are daring, plucky and resourceful protagonists with more than enough personality to carry the story. Indeed they dominate it so much that the details of the conspiracy almost seem beside the point. In the (brief) sections where they draw breath and try to work out what's happening, or when Pilgrim discusses it with his peers, I was really waiting for things to get moving again so I could enjoy more of that action. And I'm not a habitual reader of action thrillers. it's that gripping.

I won't spoil the book here by explaining what's going on except to say that it's just the kind of cynical realpolitik that you'd expect in a good techno-thriller. Connor and Kirsty are good people in a corrupt, rotten world, walking the mean streets without themselves being mean.

If Leggatt can keep up this supercharged, action driven pace into future books (...and if his characters don't flake out from sheer sustained tension...) then I'd expect his books to be widely read and loved in coming years. A name to watch.

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