I’ve always intended to do occasional reviews of straight up thrillers as well as crime fiction on CriminOlly, but other commitments have meant that I haven’t managed to until now. When I say “thriller” I don’t mean psychological thrillers, or the kind of domestic noir that is so popular at the moment. I mean novels packed with adventure and espionage, where brave men and women fight dastardly foes for the good of mankind.
I’m really thrilled then (no pun intended), that my first such review is of something quite special – a new book by a new author on the thriller scene. I read author Danny Marshall’s debut, the horror novel ‘Ferine’, a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. So when I heard he’d completed a new manuscript I was eager to get my hands on it. Danny was kind enough to provide an advance copy of ‘Anthrax Island’ and I wasn’t disappointed.
This is a book that manages to be both refreshingly modern and enjoyably retro. It takes the kind of hard edged, high concept thriller that flowed from the pen of the likes of Alistair MacLean in the 70s and brings it bang up to date. It’s gripping, smart, funny and worryingly believable.
The concept is simple, but the plot is packed with twists and turns, blending mystery, espionage and action. It starts with a technician, John Tyler, arriving on the desolate Gruinard island off the coast of Scotland. The island is infected with anthrax and home to a research base where an international team of scientists are researching biological weapons. Tyler’s job is to repair one of the HADU (Hazardous Agent Decontamination Unit) doors in the base, the previous technician having died mysteriously. The story is told from Tyler’s perspective and it quickly becomes obvious that he’s more than just a technician. As events unfold and the body count inevitably rises, Tyler faces danger from the unknown killer, the anthrax and the inhospitable environment of the island itself.
The remote, hazardous locale is a feature of many thrillers (and indeed whodunnits, which also get a nod here) because it works so well. ‘Anthrax Island’ plays with the concept brilliantly. One of the scientists is a killer, but going outside the confines of the base is fraught with danger, meaning that a lot of the book is a close-quarters guessing game as Tyler tries to work out who the murderer is. The mystery element is particularly strong, and really did keep me scratching my head right up until the satisfying conclusion.
The international cast proves entertaining too, with British, Russian, American and French interests in competition with each other in true spy novel fashion. To keep things up to date, Marshall throws in plenty of topical references which work really well. Brexit is blamed for cuts to the funding at the base and the British establishment want to keep the Americans happy as it might result in a supportive tweet from the President. There are also some fascinating chapters on the history of Britain’s involvement in biological warfare. Marshall manages to fit those in without getting in the way of the plot, which rattles along at a great pace until the action-packed climax.
All that helps make this an entertaining read, but the thing I liked most about it was the hero, Tyler. He manages to be wryly amusing without seeming like a dick and exhibits a convincing blend of confidence and confused desperation as he investigates. He’s portrayed as shabby and amoral, doing what he does for the money rather than for Queen and country, but he’s honest and likeable too. He’s also deeply, unashamedly, British, with multiple references to his Yorkshire roots and an enjoyable friction between him and the upper-class military commander of the base. He is, in many ways, the antithesis of the more famous British hero, James Bond, and that’s very much part of his appeal. Where Bond is effortlessly suave and self-assured, the desperate, dogged Tyler is probably the hero that Brexit Britain deserves.
As I said at the start, this is a thriller that manages to be both modern and enjoyably traditional. Its Britishness is particularly refreshing when you consider that our most successful thriller writer, Lee Child, writes such incredibly American books. The mix of tried and tested thriller tropes and modern sensibility makes for an engaging and satisfying novel that I couldn’t put down. On the basis of ‘Anthrax Island’ I think it’s fair to say that in Danny Marshall, Alistair MacLean has not an imitator, but a successor.