The Chinaman by Stephen Leather: A Rose by any Other Name…

Stephen Leather‘s The Chinaman is another of his earlier titles published initially in 1992. It is about a Vietnamese refugee’s hunt for justice after his wife and daughter are murdered by an IRA subversive group who aren’t playing by the cease-fire rules.

Leather writes about the IRA a lot. His books include characters that are in the Irish Republican Army or are people who have been a part of “the troubles” or have been affected by it.

In The Chinaman, we see the occupants of a department store going about their Christmas shopping. In particular we see the Nguyen family shopping. The girl, sixteen is stunningly beautiful and her mother looks years older than her actual age. We don’t get a chance to learn much about the two women as a motorbike rider has left his bike and a semtex parcel outside the store and in seconds they both become casualties of the resulting explosion.

Nguyen goes to the police to see what is being done about finding the men responsible and they direct him to the Terrorist Branch. He learns from them that it is a political problem; he then goes to the Irish politician who fronts Sinn Fein and reaches a brick wall. Nguyen then decides to take matters into his own very capable hands.

Nguyen is one of the “boat people” who escaped from Vietnam with his family after the war. Initially he fought with the Viet Cong and he switched sides when he realised that life in the NVRA wasn’t to his families benefit. Working with the Americans he fought the North Vietnamese. He is a skilled bomb maker and very able to kill someone with his bare hands. While everyone he comes in contact with see him as the owner of a Chinese food takeaway shop, he is more than his job and he is a sum of his past experiences.

While Nguyen takes on the IRA, the politician who is the spokesman for Sinn Fein, Liam Hennessy is in a race to catch this rogue IRA cell who are violating the cease-fire and killing innocent women and children. Hennessy’s got a traitor in the organisation that is supporting the cell. He must find out who it is and use the traitor to help him stop the rogue cell. Since Nguyen has targeted Hennessy as the person that can tell him who killed his family, Hennessy is also hoping to tell the “Chinaman” that the men responsible have been punished. If he does not tell Nguyen quickly enough, he will kill him.

It is amusing to see everyone in the book refer to the Vietnamese refugee as a Chinaman. Reminiscent of westerns where the characters call anyone with a German or Austrian accent Dutchie, because Nguyen is oriental a somewhat illogical conclusion is made to Hong Kong and he becomes the Chinaman. It is a nice touch and it’s one that mirrors real life. Another mirroring effect is Leather’s use of the IRA in his books.

When I first came to the United Kingdom, the IRA was still bombing civilian targets and killing women and children in support of their cause. Americans had (and a lot still do) a much romanticized idea about the Irish terrorist group and what they were doing. I am sure that good public relations, aka fund-raisers did not help to dispel this romantic version of terrorism.

I was on a bus tour in London October 1982. It was full of US servicemen and women and their families. The tour guide was doing what tour guides the world over do. “If you look to your right you’ll see ______ and if you look straight ahead you’ll see_____.” Right in the middle of his spiel he paused and with an emotional quaver in his voice said, “Earlier this year, the IRA blew up the Queen’s Horses.” Wiping his eyes with one hand he continued, “How on earth could your fellow countrymen support such people? Who did those horses ever harm? Three soldiers died and quite a lot of tourists were injured by the bomb. Why would you support such a thing? Why?”

The bus I was on was silent. I don’t know what everyone else thought, but I was ashamed of the fact that my fellow countrymen had supported this group. The IRA was a fact of life in this country for years, centuries. I’ve worked with men who had the unbelievably terrifying job of patrolling Ireland and searching for the “soldiers” of the Irish Republic Army.

I’ve never seen them as soldiers, terrorists are not soldiers. The picture that Steven Leather paints of the participants of this organisation is one of devout fanaticism and hatred of the British troops and the British government. Of course the picture also includes the religious roots of Ireland and the divide that enabled this “war,” or the troubles as the Irish refer to it, to go on for so long.

When Mr Leather writes his stories, he shows that the IRA still has a firm supporting base from not only American sympathisers, but from Syrian and Palestinian terrorist groups. He describes the far reach that the organisation has and exactly what lengths both sides are prepared to go to.

The Chinaman is a cracking good read and moves at a good pace. It is another example of just how entertaining this author is and will be for some time to come.

I give The Chinaman a 4 and a half stars out of five.

Author Stephen Leather.

The Birthday Girl by Stephen Leather: Not Just an Arms Race

My local library has gotten a whole load of Stephen Leather and Jo Nesbo books in at the moment so I’m having to “switch hit” as it were between the two. So it looks like a Leather and Nesbo winter read by the metaphorical fireplace.

I had hoped to read some more of Leather’s more vintage material, to get a feeling of how each story matured in the way of content and presentation. After reading The Birthday Girl though, which is still fairly early in his writing career being published in 1995, I think that plan has been circumvented by the fact that all Leather’s stories thus far have been rich in detail.

The book starts with Tony Freeman who works for an arms development company. He is outside of the Sarajevo Holiday Inn when he is kidnapped by Bosnian rebels and held for ransom. While in captivity he meets the leader of the rebels and his 13-year-old sister Merisha.

Back home, Tony’s partner Maury Anderson has made a deal with a Russian Mobster and his psychopathic brother to pay the ransom and to get some mercenaries to free Tony. As the mercenaries attack the rebels and start to kill Merisha, Tony throws himself over the young girl and is shot in the legs as a result.

While he is recovering, he demands to see Merisha (he had built up a rapport with the girl while he was being held for ransom). When he sees that she has been put in with male adult prisoners and is being mistreated, he demands her release and states that he will adopt the girl and that he and his wife will raise her.

In one of the less believable plot twists of the book, the authorities agree to this proposition and allow Katherine and Tony Freeman to adopt the little rebel.

Fast forward four years and it is Merisha’s 16th birthday. Besides the traditional celebrations all Maury Anderson’s “chickens” have come home to roost. His Russian buddies now want the entire arms company and he has a cocaine habit the size of an elephant riding on his back.

Katherine, we find out, is a bit of a nymphomaniac and is busily shagging anything with a snake in their trousers. Merisha is seeing a ‘shrink’ for therapy and Katherine is seeing him for other reasons. When Merisha finds out that Katherine is shagging the good doctor, she decides to pay him a visit and demand that he stop. She adores her father and will do anything to make sure he is happy.

It is another thriller and it is the usual fast paced, action packed read. I did enjoy the book, but, I spent a lot of time “skip reading” it. I found that I literally hated Katherine and Maury and really could not get behind their characters at all. So when a sentence would start with Katherine getting ready to have another extramarital shag or Maury begging the Russian gangsters for a little more leniency, I read one or two sentences and then would “skip” to the Tony/Merisha part of the story.

But to be truthful, I did not really like Tony that much either. He is a staunch Scotsman who sticks by his principles, but damn it, the man is as bland as Melba toast. Apart from standing up to Katherine’s bullying father so he could marry her and “saving” Merisha, he is devoid of any real personality.

The only character I had any interest in was Merisha. Leather’s description of her healing process after being taken away from the Bosnian/Serbia war was interesting and fairly truthful, I felt. I have had dealings with a teen Bosnian refugee from that horrible time.

He has seen his immediate family murdered and watched his mother and sisters being repeatedly raped. This young man was anything but normal. He had, not unsurprisingly, started off a life of crime and violence. His extended family (distant relatives who had taken him in) could not control or understand this tortured young man.

So Leather’s story of Merisha’s childhood and the horrible atrocities against her family and the other Bosnian families had a solid ring of truth. It is this fact alone that made the book worth reading. I have read other books that made reference to the ethnic cleansing that the Serb‘s were involved in, but they have been from a military or mercenary point of view.

It was very interesting to see it from a surviving victim’s point of view, despite the fact that I felt the initial opening of the adoption was a bit hard to digest.

I wouldn’t recommend that you rush out to read this book, but it is well worth a look. It is standard Leather reading but without the usual characters that you can really root for. You will have to suspend your disbelief quite a lot for this one, but I’d still give it three and a half stars out of five for entertainment value.

Stephen Leather.

The Fireman by Stephen Leather…Vintage Leather

Published in 1989, The Fireman by Stephen Leather is his second book. Leather was still working as a journalist at the time so it is no wonder that his protagonist and his story are set in the world of journalism.

Fireman is the term applied to a ‘high flyer’ in the news world. They are the journalists who are sent around the world at a moments notice to cover the big stories. They are the heavy hitters, the Babe Ruth’s of reporting and as such are on call twenty-four hours a day. It is an exhausting job, but one that pays well and you have a guaranteed by-line.

The main character is the fireman that the title refers to. Or was the fireman before he got jaded and his intake of alcohol required that he be “dried out.” The rehab was paid for by the newspaper he works for and he has slid down the professional ladder to second string crime reporter. One step below an overpaid youngster.

The paper is being taken over by computers and their workforce is dwindling. The fireman gets a call from Hong Kong where his sister Sally is working as a free-lance journalist. She has fallen from a tall building and the Hong Kong police are calling it suicide. He now needs fly to Hong Kong and sort her things out and explain to the police that Sally would never kill herself.

Set in the days before Hong Kong was “given” back to China, the colour and the pace of the place is brilliantly painted for the reader. The ex-pats and their comfort in a self-imposed exile from England are just as colourful and also sad. These are not life’s movers and shakers, rather they are the ‘also rans’ who have managed to find a place higher up on the social ladder.

That Stephen Leather has a solid background in journalism is apparent in how well he describes the setting of the newspaper’s working environment. I worked for a local rag in the early 90’s. Not as a journalist, but as a driver. As the paper was more localized I was privy to how a lot of things worked and got to see how every thing came together to produce the paper.

But, even if you haven’t worked in that arena, you can feel the authenticity of the characters and the pecking order as laid out by Leather in his book.

Written in the first person, you never learn the protagonists name. When I went to write this review I ‘skip read’ through the book repeatedly to find his name. Not there. This, I have been lead to understand, is a common device with Mr Leather in a few of his books. It does not detract from the story, if anything it helps give the impression that you are living the action right along with the hero.

And there is a lot of action to live through. You follow him every step of the way as he tries to find out who was behind his sister Sally’s murder. It is entertaining and very fast paced. As this was his second work to be published, it lacks a lot of the polish that his later books have. But the rough edges don’t detract from the story and it is still a good read.

In an interview, Leather has stated that he was not too happy about the family circumstances that his editor insist that he put into the story. I can empathise with him as that part of the story stuck out like a sore thumb and did feel “tacked on.” I won’t say what it is but I do believe that you’ll find the same when you read the book.

When the villain is finally tracked down and dealt with it is one of the best cases of poetic justice I’ve seen. I enjoyed my leisurely perusal  of vintage Stephen Leather and I am looking forward to reading some of his other earlier books.

While this book is not in the same league as Fair Game or Nightmare, Stephen still shows that splendid ear for dialogue that makes his books stand out so much from other authors.

I would highly recommend reading The Fireman. It will entertain you and hold your attention.

Fair Game by Stephen Leather…Spider’s Web

Fair Game, published in 2011 by Hodder & Stoughton, and written by Stephen Leather is just what an action thriller should be; Fast paced, gritty, violent, hard and feature a main protagonist that your readers can root for.

This is only the second book I’ve read by Stephen Leather and it has convinced me that I need to read all his books. Having read his latest book in the Jack Nightingale series, I was already hotly anticipating the next in that series and I’m trying to go back and read Nightingale’s entire saga in preparation for the next instalment.

I am now a Dan ‘Spider’ Shepard fan.

Fair Game, touted as the eighth in the Spider Shepard series by Amazon, starts out hard and never lets up. I have written about Leather before in a review I did on his last Jack Nightingale series (check the afore highlighted Nightingale link) and I am no less impressed with Leather’s creation of Spider Shepard.

As with the Nightingale book, Leather’s ear for dialogue and accents and topical language is still top-notch. Each character is brought to living, breathing life via their conversations. The overleaf for the book states that Spider is going after Somalian pirates, which he does,  but the book also deals with the IRA and Al Qaeda.

This international cast of criminal characters is impressive and they are interwoven brilliantly by Mr Leather as he ties up all the separate elements to cast his Spider’s web.

The book begins with an IRA cell who are preparing to transport a bomb to its final destination. A group of IRA enforcers break into the bomb area and announce that one of their number is a traitor and working with the British forces. Once the traitor is identified one of the enforcers turns his gun on his enforcer comrades and executes them.

This is Spider’s initial entrance to this story and he does not fail to impress.

Shepard is a professional working for MI5 the spiritual cousin to MI6. Shepard is the “real” James Bond here. Rather than working as a super spook though, he is a super undercover operator who is also licensed to kill. This he does. Spider is fast, brutal and professional, he is also relentless. This combination makes him impervious to any feelings of guilt he may have connected with his taking of life.

The story goes on to show us Spider’s home life and his son Liam and his au pair Katra. We also meet Shepard’s boss Charlotte ‘Charlie’  Button and we meet Spider’s IRA equivalent Lisa O’Hara who is on a bloody mission to track him down and make him pay for his death-dealing in Ireland.

We also meet Crazy Boy a Somalian wide boy who is a pirate, terrorist, drug dealer and addicted Khat and Xbox Manhunt player. Crazy Boy’s pirates take up the vast majority of the plot. They take a yacht which was on its way to the new owner. The transport crew on the boat include the Prime Minister’s God-daughter and Crazy boy’s Somalian crew abuse them while waiting for the ransom to be paid.

Real Somalian pirates.

Crazy Boy also arranges to “take” a container transport ship (usually ignored by pirates) as part of his dealing with a middle-man for the Al Qaeda.

Shepard gets his hand dirty working against the odds to sort out all the problems he is handed by Charlie. He is also working against Lisa O’Hara who is getting ever closer to killing Spider.

This is how a spy thriller should be written. I have not read a book with such vivid characters. Stephen Leather’s ear for the speech patterns of his characters is spot on and I’ve said before (as well as earlier in this article) that this serves to make them come alive. Where most authors miss the nuances of their character’s speech, Leather nails it firmly and solidly.

As the winter days grow ever shorter and the nights grow longer, treat yourself to an exhilarating ride with Spider Shepard and Stephen Leather.

I will.

*On a side note, after I wrote my review on Stephen’s Nightmare, he actually tweeted the review and started following me on twitter, moreover he thanked me for the review. Not many writers do that, I know I’ve written a ‘couple’ of reviews now. He is a class act and proof that talent and hard work will out.*