“Kill Your Boss” by Shane Kuhn (2014)

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“If you’re reading this, you’re a new employee at Human Resources, Inc.”

I remember reading once that you’re more likely to die prematurely being a character in a soap opera than you are in a war. In literature, it seems that the odds are stacked even more against you. There are so few books that don’t involve the two constants somewhere in their narrative – love and death. And in literature, we meet not only the victims and those tracking down the killers, but we get to know quite a lot of the killers too. John Lago, for example.

John Lago is a hitman for Human Resources, Inc. They are a large company of trained assassins who will take on any job for the right money and scrub someone off the face of the Earth before you can blink. They specialise in crooked white-collar workers by using assassins in their early twenties who pose as interns in their companies. Interns, it seems, are easily forgotten, can seemlessly blend into their surroundings and never draw attention to themselves, making them perfect sleeper agents. John is twenty-five and on his last assignment, taking on a role at Bendini, Lambert & Locke, an enormous New York law firm. One of the top men is selling witness protection data, and they need to find out which one it is and take him out.

John begins to blend into his office as usual, but things are complicated when he meets and falls for Alice who works for the same company and is clearly into him. Distracted by such hindrances as romance and emotions, John is finding it a little harder than usual to find a way to his target, and matters are complicated further when he hacks into Alice’s computer and discovers that she’s an undercover FBI agent investigating the very man he’s trying to kill. John will need all of his wits about him as he tackles his final challenge. Once he’s done this, he can retire with sacks of money, have plastic surgery and disappear for good. That is, if he survives…

The book is written as a guide to new recruits to HR Inc., and indeed in the USA it was published as The Intern’s Handbook, which is also the name John gives his book in-universe. He is a desperately unpleasant character, which may seem obvious given that he’s a hitman, but I’ve read about them before and some of them are much more likeable, oddly. While there are redeeming features and much is made of his horrific, abusive and neglectful childhood shunted around between foster homes and the care system, there’s no way of getting around the fact he committed his first murder aged eight and is recruited by Bob at HR Inc. when he’s twelve. Unpleasant perhaps, but not without humour. John is quite funny, as is the book in general, and the concept of planting faceless interns into companies to bring down criminals is a really good one.

However, all in all, while it had some interesting moments and a cast of rather fascinating characters, it lacked any really satisfying payoff and by the time you’re there it’s almost impossible to work out what was true and what wasn’t after all. Not in the sense of “it was all a dream” which would be unforgivable, but just in that when you’re dealing with secret agencies, there are always more lies being spread around than you might realise. Naturally as one might expect of the theme, there are a lot of very violent scenes and complicated fights that are described in painstaking detail. One or two are fine, but you become somewhat desensitised to it towards the end and the suspension of disbelief that John is surviving all these attacks threatens to fail. It was an interesting concept and I enjoyed it, but it feels like one of those that I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about six months down the line.

A fun, quick read, and perhaps deserving of cult classic status one day.

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“The Rain-Soaked Bride” by Guy Adams (2014)

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rain-soaked“From the other side of St Isaac’s Square, a driver beats his horn twice in quick succession.”

I made a mistake this week, it turns out, although not one that had particularly dramatic consequences. I started reading the book in question this week and thought something seemed a bit … odd. It jumped right into the action, and while that’s not unusual in a book, said action was never then later explained. It took longer than it should’ve done for me to realise that The Rain-Soaked Bride was a sequel. As such, I may have missed some of the finer points of an ongoing arc, and perhaps it tainted my enjoyment a little, but nonetheless, here are my thoughts.

The novel opens with Tony Greene chasing down the Russian Mafia through a hotel to save a woman from a life of prostitution. (I think if I’d read the first book, this would’ve all made a bit more sense to me as to the stakes and the characters.) It jumps ahead three months and we learn that Tony is the latest recruit of The Clown Service, the department of British Intelligence that deals with paranormal threats to the nation. This time round, people have started dropping dead after receiving a cursed text message, each of them being killed by the accident-causing rain-soaked bride of the title.

When it turns out all the dead people are all related to a trade agreement between the British and the South Koreans, Tony Greene and his superior August Shining are called in to accompany the delegations at Lufford Hall in Alcester. They are accompanied by August’s sister April and various other members of the Secret Service, but before long more people are found dead, each in a situation that could be an accident, but the sodden and saturated surroundings suggest otherwise. Tony, Shining and the others must work out how to remove this curse once and for all before the negotiations entirely fail.

The cover of the book bills it as “the spy thriller that Douglas Adams never wrote” and I can see where they’re coming from with that. It has shades of Douglas Adams about it, but it’s not as funny for a start. The funniest character is April Shining, by a long way, and that’s simply for her amazing dialogue and sense of not caring what anyone else thinks about her, nor bowing to any demands thrown her way. The rest of the characters all fall a bit flat for me, and there are very few physical descriptions of any of them, although, again, perhaps this is what happens when you miss an installment.

It does have some great observations, particularly those about the English, noting that the English response to approaching trouble is “polishing the silverware and pressing the shirt collars while the enemy advances”, and April at one point notes that English food is fine “once you get the hang of gravy”. However, generally a lot falls flat and there feels like there are a lot of plot points left hanging that never quite get explained, and the reveal of who is behind it all comes a bit too soon, meaning we spend a lot of the final third of the book dealing with the fallout without the suspense. The supernatural stuff is quite good – I enjoyed the expert in curses and the dip into a Japanese mythology – but I’ve seen this sort of thing done better, such as in The Rook.

I’m probably not being fair on the book, because I’m obviously missing a fair amount from having skipped ahead, and while the dealings with the bride herself work as a standalone, the ongoing plot threads are lost on me. Still, I’m not writing it off, and I probably will end up reading the first book too. Lesson learned – stick to the prescribed order!

“From Russia With Love” by Ian Fleming (1957)

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frwlbook

“The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead.”

My love of Agatha Christie is now well-documented on this blog, but we mustn’t forget that her detectives are not the only ones ever worth mentioning. One of my friends is a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, which I still don’t really understand, and another, the librarian, is James Bond’s number one fan. Between us, we cover the three biggest detectives and spies of the last century and have started dabbling in one another’s areas.

Despite her love of Bond, however, this book actually came from my publisher who produced it from his bag as if by magic after a night out. The version I have is something pretty special. It’s from 1963, smells stunning, has a wonderfully outdated price on the front (2′ 6), and on the first page there is mention of how Eon Films are turning this title into the second James Bond film, starring Sean Connery. How times change.

I’ve seen a smattering of the Bond films – I got quite into them when Pierce Brosnan was in the role, my knowledge is otherwise somewhat limited – and always had an interest in the gadgets and gizmos he’s given to play with by Q, but I had never read any of the books, so this was my first foray into the literary world of James Bond. Many of you have probably already seen this film, but for those who haven’t, here is briefly what this story is about.

Somewhere deep within Russia’s Secret Service, SMERSH, in the mid-fifties, a plan is being drawn up. They feel that some of their enemies have become too complacent and they decide that an act of terrorism should shake people into action. They begin to decide which country they will attack, and then pinpoint an individual spy to defame and destroy. There is much discussion, but they soon decide that the British are a worthy enemy. Who will they attack? Well, it turns out there’s this fellow called James Bond…

Bond, meanwhile, is called into M’s office and told that somewhere within the folds of the Russian Secret Service is a young woman who has fallen in love with Bond through the photographs and reports she’s been looking through. If Bond can convince her that he loves her too and grant her safe passage to England, she will in turn bring a cipher machine that will greatly aid in codebreaking.

The suspicions that I’ve long held about Bond through the films and general cultural osmosis were proven to be mostly right within this book – he’s not a particularly nice man. Much is made of his “cruel smile”, and while perhaps he’s not quite as ruthless here as he can be in other stories, I still don’t think I’d want to meet the man. In fact, most of the characters are unpleasant, obviously because most of the focus goes on the antagonists. In fact, Bond doesn’t even turn up for the first third of the book; instead, Fleming deals with the background and the Russians’ plot. He paints vivid pictures of sadistic, torture-loving lesbian Rosa Klebb and psychopathic murderer Red Grant. In fact, Kerim Bey, the head of British Intelligence in Turkey, is just about the only person you’d want to join for dinner, providing you didn’t have to drink the raki. (Bond drinks a hell of a lot of raki in this novel and, take it from me, it’s not a drink that’s easy to stomach.)

It feels oddly dense for such a short book, and lacks the dynamic action feel of the films, but that’s only to be expected, I think. It’s hard not to think of the films when reading the book, and perhaps that is why it feels tainted. However, that sounds negative but I enjoyed the book a lot. It’s smart and has some curiously beautiful sentences and witty one-liners within, and ends on a surprising cliffhanger when all the action begins to accelerate but there aren’t enough pages for everything to happen. Fleming takes his time to describe people and places with intimate detail, allowing for almost complete immersion into the world.

I would return to Bond again, quite happily, but not just yet. Fleming is good, but Christie still wins out, so as a congratulatory present to myself for trying a new author, I’m going back to her for my next book.

If you want to read more of my words, please download my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus from Amazon or iTunes, wherever you are in the world!