Sometimes a man must take a step back to move forwards...
In a small, sleepy Pennsylvania town, the staff of a loan store find themselves at the mercy of a gunman who demands they hand over the store's entire cash reserves. But when the sound of police sirens shatters the silence sooner than expected, the robber is forced to take a young female customer hostage in order to make his escape.
Sometimes a man must take a step back to move forwards... and sometimes he just has to get up close and into a lot of faces. Either way James Bishop is exactly the sort of bloke you want to see looming up behind the disaster that life can sometimes turn out to be.
BACKTRACK is the second James Bishop book from Jason Dean, in, so far, two rather good, solid thriller books with a flawed but resilient central hero. Bishop, former marine, wrongfully accused prisoner, close protection bodyguard now disappearance expert manages to extricate a young woman from a nasty husband with suspect involvements, into a new identity and life with considerable aplomb. So he's not best pleased when it turns out that she's subsequently vanished. Bishop has a bit of history with obligations he messed up, and he isn't going to let that happen again. So he is determined to find Sonja Addison and how come there are other blonde, young women disappearing as well?
One of the most common things about a lot of thrillers of this kind, is that the central threat's got to be big and bold and just that bit out there. In this case whilst it might be a bit difficult to swallow the ultimate reason, there's something very convincing about the idea that women could just drop out of sight from disparate locations and backgrounds and have nobody make a connection, until a suspended female cop and an ex-marine with a tricky past accidentally fall over each other in the middle of their individual searches.
Of course it doesn't hurt in the acceptance stakes that Bishop is quite an interesting central protagonist. Far from perfect he's got enough of energiser bunny syndrome to be exciting and enough aches and pains to be plausible. It helps also that his sidekick in this adventure, Clarissa Vallejo, suspended cop, secret lover and particularly talented car driver is also a strong character who contributes, rather than stands around or causes complications.
This really is a great thriller series, with a central character who is definitely somebody you'd want on your side. Not the least because he's somebody who is not so good, so perfect, so invincible that you don't end up with a sneaking desire to barrack for the baddies once in a while. With a strong, capable and well-developed female sidekick in BACKTRACK, any slight wobbliness in the plot believability was a mere hiccup in what was, overall, a most enjoyable and fast-paced adventure.
THE WRONG MAN - Jason Dean
In this adrenaline-fuelled thriller from Jason Dean, former Marine James Bishop only has one opportunity to make his prison break. And one chance to prove he isn't responsible for the murders that put him inside.
Three years ago Bishop was the leader of a elite close protection team assigned to safeguard a millionaire and his daughter. After being attacked, Bishop regained consciousness to find seven bodies strewn throughout the millionaire's Long Island mansion – including those of his two charges – and a mountain of evidence guaranteed to send him down for the murders.
I've got to start rationing this sort of thriller. I'm starting to develop a bit of a twitch when there are any loud bangs anywhere, and don't get me started on the reaction when anybody a bit furtive-looking is walking towards me on the streets of the local towns.... Although I will admit there's something rather appealing about close protection bodyguards. Except maybe not the lot that James Bishop gets himself mixed up with in THE WRONG MAN.
Bishop's been framed, and the initial action in the book sets up the circumstances of that event at breakneck pace, continuing that right to the very last page. A debut novel, THE WRONG MAN also has an interesting plot which seemed refreshingly unique to me. His ex-military background is part of what got him the job, and got him involved with the people that are trying to screw him over. It's part of the reason for his actions and his abilities, but that's about where the military style involvement ends. We're not talking politics, or lurking baddies of <insert your threatening culture / belief system here>. Just a good old fashioned "I was framed yer honour", and a bit of hard graft to sort it all out.
Sure Bishop's another stoic loner and more than a bit of an energiser bunny type, who gets the girl and then doesn't quite know what to do about it. There is a bit of daft fem-jep going on which was mildly disappointing, although there was some redemption of that towards the end. Of course there are lurking baddies in the picture, but mostly it's about self-interest, and most of them are very matter of fact about Bishop as a threat to their own agendas. There's also a satisfying level of special effects type action, and a lot of personal jeopardy and bugger the consequences going on, but that's balanced well with a plot and some characters that you can get a bit of a connection with.
THE WRONG MAN was one of those books that was a sit down and read in one sitting. It was highly entertaining, exciting and a nail-biting at points, overall a satisfying, good debut novel. Hopefully there are more from this author in the pipeline.
ZERO HOUR IN PHNOM PENH - Christopher G Moore
In the early 1990s, at the end of the devastating civil war UN peacekeeping forces try to keep the lid on the violence. Gunfire can still be heard nightly in Phnom Penh, where Vietnamese prostitutes try to hook UN peacekeepers from the balcony of the Lido Bar.
Set mostly in Phnom Penh, ZERO HOUR IN PHNOM PENH is based in the early 1990's, at the end of the civil war that tore Cambodia apart, in the wake of the appalling Khmer Rouge regime. UN peacekeeping forces are on the streets, gunfire is regularly heard, and PI Vincent Calvino is looking for an American man - a farang - who has friends in Thailand keen to get in touch with him.
With a distinctly noir sensibility, ZERO HOUR takes Calvino from where he is based in Thailand into the dangerous, unpredictable, unstable and decidedly seedy world of underground Phnom Penh. It's a risky business as it is obvious from the people this man is involved with, that there has to be something very dodgy going on. Even Calvino's friend Thai policeman Colonel Pratt seems to know a lot more about the missing man's involvements than he is letting on.
For a book with such a noir sensibility, there are some unexpected elements, not least of all a lot of descriptive and discursive story-lines that do mean it seems to take an age for any actual action to take place. Which isn't a bad thing at all if you're looking for noir with more of a cultural immersion effect. I will confess that it took me quite a while to get into the tone of the book - initially I found the wandering down various cul-de-sacs somewhat disconcerting, mostly because I struggled to see where everything could possibly be heading. That wasn't helped by some of the little offerings of sheer brilliance - the death of one particularly colourful character on the concrete steps in the stand at the racetrack was described with such skill that you could see him, his chocolate brownie, and the milling crowd with absolutely no effort whatsoever. I wanted more of that - more of the story moving forward. And once that started to happen, it has to be said a fair way into the book, I was completely and absolutely hooked.
It is a very dark story, and Calvino is a classic lone-wolf, cynical, side of the mouth talking, slightly Energiser Bunny sort of survivor that comes to that stereotype in a place, and an environment that's absolutely fascinating. There's no holds barred in the way that Phnom Penh is described, the way that the lawless society operates and the stark and very in-your-face descriptions of the differences between the UN peacekeepers and locals. There are a lot of people in this place living life on the edge, sometimes taking advantage, mostly being taken advantage of. It's not a pretty place, but whilst there are some glimpses of people trying to move forward, there are also some telling and very pointed examples of a collective ignoring, or lack of awareness of the reality of the present - and the immediate past. I was particularly struck by the references to an incident with a missing Australian traveller - a real-life incident I remember very well.
ZERO HOUR is not all noir, not all description, not all dire and not all dark though. There are glimpses of kindness, of care and of generosity. There's touches of humour, there's character development and there's a central lone-wolf character who might not exactly wisecrack his way through the grime, but he certainly is a dab hand at a bit of observational wryness. Despite the slow start to ZERO HOUR IN PHNOM PENH I found this book increasingly compelling as I went through. Definitely a series that I need to catch up with.