Crime Fiction

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A Fatal Game by Nicholas Searle

A book that didn’t quite live up to our expectations.
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It seems that Nicholas Searle is a most unusual author. Before starting his career as a writer, he was, for many years, a senior civil servant “dealing with security matters”. Having retired, he enrolled on an online creative writing course run by the literary agents Curtis Brown, and then published his first novel – The Good Liar – in February 2016. It became an instant bestseller and has been made into a film starring Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen, which will be “coming to a cinema near you” after 8 November 2019.

Because of his previous career we can assume that Searle’s third novel – A Fatal Game – contains a fair bit of inside knowledge about the security services and their fight against terrorism. And to endorse this, the book’s cover shows a quote from a review saying: ‘Think of Ruth Rendell morphing into John Le Carré.’ So far, so good. But is it really?

The book’s protagonist is a spook called Jake Winter, a man who is treading water. A few months before the start of the story one of his informants (a boy called Abu Omar) had become a suicide bomber, setting off his bomb in a crowded train station, killing 63 people. Jake is now giving evidence at the public inquiry while, at the same time, trying to manage a new informant, a young man called Rashid.

As we’re introduced to more characters, the book splits into sections. The reader is allowed to hear the thoughts and feelings of each of the three boys who have been recruited to work alongside Rashid by a terrorist they call The Sheikh. Later, we also hear the thoughts and feelings of Jake’s colleagues, Leila and Jon.

The story see-saws between the public inquiry and the efforts being taken by Jake and his colleagues to stop another attack. And all the while in the background, senior spooks, politicians and policemen vie for supremacy and look for someone – anyone – to blame for what has happened before. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to realise that Jake will be the fall guy.

As a group we surprised ourselves because we all felt the same way about this book – something that rarely happens. Yes, it is a tense scenario, which hooks you in immediately. But apart from one twist at the end, we found the story rather predictable. The clues about The Sheikh’s identity were there to see and the characters (even Jake) were wooden. And across all its strands the story followed a logical, rather plodding path. This wasn’t a page-turner bursting with tension that you couldn’t bear to put down. The ending, when it came, surprised no-one in our group.

One person compared Searle’s writing style to watching a stage production where, at the end of each chapter, you could see the stage hands changing the props and scenery. And although the final twist in the story was unexpected and unusual, we didn’t think it was enough to rescue the whole. The highest rating offered was 3.5 Stars and the lowest 2-Stars.

At the end of our discussion, someone mentioned that Searle has already sold the film rights for this story. Sadly, we wondered if this explained why he didn’t try harder to make it work on the page. Maybe he should stick to scripts.

If you enjoy reading crime fiction why not come along to one of our meetings? They’re on the third Friday of every month, 2.30pm @ Oundle Library. It’s all very informal because we don’t have a set reading list. We do, however, enjoy a wide-ranging chat about the books we’ve read and enjoyed. Everyone welcome.