A Shadow Intelligence
By Oliver Harris
This absorbing, complex,often breathtakingly exciting and occasionally bewildering spy novel is narrated in the first person by its chief protagonist, Elliot Kane, a world-weary field officer of some fifteen years highly effective overseas experience. After the sort of hectic prelude to which we are accustomed from myriad James Bond movies, Elliot is called home for the debriefing, at which the first surprise comes when his phone is demanded of him, but not before it has revealed to him a mysterious video which appears to show him standing in a room in which he is certain he has never been, accompanied by a cryptic message which he is equally certain must have come from a fellow female agent with whom he has had a brief affair (but for whom it becomes clear he has never lost a sense of longing which is quite outside his apparently mechanistic personality) and who seems to have disappeared without trace while on an undisclosed mission in Kazakhstan. An undefined suspicion seems to have fallen upon her within MI6 HQ, and by association, on Elliot too.
So naturally when at the end of the debriefing session, Elliot is told not to leave the country, that’s precisely what he does, armed with a predictable array of false passports and heading for Kazakhstan and becoming in the process a hybrid between the classic Rogue Male and the sort of relentless outsider figure portrayed in the Jason Bourne movies, as he commences what becomes a labyrinthine search for his lover.Perched precariously between Russia and China, between western style democracy and old-style Soviet dictatorship, and poised on the edge of oil riches which may prove illusionary, Kazakhstan is a clever choice as both the foreground and hinterland of the narrative, and attentive readers are assured of emerging from this convincingly contemporary novel with a greater appreciation both of the tensions which affect that country, and of the remote beauty of its landscapes.
Formidably adroit in the dangerous demi-monde of cyber warfare, Elliot is drawn into a geo-politically enthralling environment in which the worst mistake in the world appears to be to trust anyone about anything. Elliot himself remains an elusive personality, a shadow in his own life. ‘The problem with trauma is that it’s a plughole’ he says, ‘and every bad thing got drawn towards it, towards the thought: That was where I lost the life I was supposed to have.’
The narrative is expressed in a terselyassertive style, but is rescued from the mundane by its involving subtlety. The reader in turn is forced to grapple with a welter of techno-acronyms which spread promiscuously into the narrative, and which cause the pace of the plot occasionally to stumble at the beginning.But gradually as these distractions are overcome, (or at least we learn to absorb them), the pace of the narrative picks up with a sinuous fascination until it reaches its gripping climax with an inexorable flourish.
Review by Jonathan Stone, Sherborne Literary Society