Dead Men by Stephen Leather: Shepherd Number 5

Stephen Leather‘s Daniel ‘Spider’ Shepherd is an ex-Special Air Services (aka Special Forces, aka SAS) who now works for the newly formed SOCA (the Serious Organised Crime Agency) as an undercover operative. Dead Men is the fifth in the series and like all the other books about Spider, it’s a cracking good read.

As I’ve said before, Stephen Leather writes about the IRA quite often in his books, whether they are Spider Shepherd books or not, showing just how much the IRA are part of British history and life. Despite the peace talks and the fact that the IRA was “absorbed” by Sinn Fein, they are still a painful memory for a lot of Briton’s and only recently have been replaced as the national “boogey men” by Al-Qaeda.

Shepherd lives with his son Liam and their “live-in” housekeeper/nanny/cook Katra. His boss is the hard-as-nails Charlotte Button aka Charlie. She has transferred from MI5 to the new crime unit. He will in this book try to solve a series of IRA revenge killings while trying to keep Liam, Katra and Charlie safe from revenge killings from a different source.

Dead Men takes a closer look at the aftermath of the peace talks and the hard feelings felt by those who felt that justice had not been served regarding the terrorist action of the IRA. When the men and women who participated in Irelands “war” against England receive a “get out of jail free” card that absolves them of all crimes committed, a lot of people are unhappy.

The book opens with the barbaric execution of a local police constable Robbie Carter during “the troubles”. He is “kneecapped” (shot behind the knees) and then summarily shot in the back of the head. All this takes place in front of his wife and son.

Years later, someone is taking out the gang of “executioners” in the exact same manner that Carter was killed. SOCA has the job of finding out who is actually committing the murders. The finger of the law is pointing to Carter’s widow Elaine who, in the years after her husband’s murder, has also lost her son to Leukaemia.

Spider has been tasked to “get close” to her and prove her innocence or guilt. Meanwhile Charlie Button’s MI5 past is catching up with her in the form of an angry father. She and an American operative from “Spooksville” (CIA and black ops Homeland Security)  USA Richard Yokely (a very interesting character who is perhaps a bit more dangerous than Spider) interrogated two men who wound up dying as a direct and not so direct result of their questioning.

Poppa hires a top-of-the-league “hitman” to take them both out, painfully and aware of why they have been targeted. As the gang of IRA murderers gets smaller and smaller, only one is left. He is married “to a Kennedy” and has high political aspirations. But will he live long enough to see them happen?

As with all the Spider Shepherd books, Stephen Leather paints a sharp clear picture of his characters. They are alive and breathing; Leather’s ear for dialogue with all its nuances is, as usual, spot on. Shepherd is  interesting to read about and like the other books in the series you lose nothing by not reading them in order. Spider knows right from wrong and he  also realises that the world is full of a lot of grey areas. He deftly and with no qualms steps from the black and white world into this grey area in his undercover world.

Despite this book being somewhat “early on” in the Spider Shepherd books, the writing is just as crisp as in his later books. Published initially in 2008, Dead Men gives a bit more of an insight on Shepherd and on Charlie, while letting us into Richard Yokely’s world a bit more.

I would give Dead Men a 5 out of 5 stars for not only being a great paced action thriller but also a mystery of very enjoyable difficulty.

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.*

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