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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Severance Kill Marks a Home Run for Tim Stevens

Severance Kill
Tim Stevens
Nov. 21, 2012
Smashwords: 80,583 words (approximately 179 pages)
ISBN: 9781301795628

 I will be checking Smashwords (https://www.smashwords.com)  very carefully in the future. I recently finished the first novel I bought there, and was pleasantly surprised: in his spy yarn, Severance Kill, author Tim Stevens knocks the ball right over the deepest part of the left field fence.

The book’s hero is Martin Calvary, the most secret kind of secret agent that exists in spy fiction: a guy who works for a British agency, The Chapel, that is so obscure even the people in British intelligence have never heard of it.

Calvary is sent to Prague to assassinate a retired MI6 hand named Ivor Gaines who is suspected of selling out the Brits to the old Soviet Union. This task is made more challenging because Gaines is kidnapped by a Czech organized crime group before Calvary can terminate him.

The spy has to spend most of the rest of the novel trying to track Gaines down, a hunt complicated by the fact that his agency is not the only one looking for the suspected mole: also on the chase are the Russian secret police, who have made Gaines a top priority target for some “wet” work of their own.

The pursuit occurs at breakneck pace, with violent episodes aboard a Czech passenger tram, a bookstore, a café, a hospital, a public park and a half dozen other sites. Calvary remains steadily one half step behind his opposition, but the guy is so good at mayhem that the fact he is playing catch up throughout the book hardly seems to be a disadvantage.

In the background is always the open question: what will Calvary do when he finally does catch up to the suspected mole? Will he kill Gaines?  Turn him over to the Russians?  Let him go?  To Stevens’ credit, he manages to make the outcome uncertain until the very end of the book.

Severance Kill has everything you want in a spy novel: plenty of exotic atmosphere, political cynicism, a menacing aura of menace, automatic weapons, high speed vehicular chases and a body count large enough to have changed the outcome of the Vietnam War. There is even a hint of romance between Calvary and a young Czech woman who becomes enmeshed in the action.

In addition to the frantic pace and high-stakes violence, the novel is driven by a series of subplots and back stories that add just enough intrigue to augment the action.  How did Calvary come to be recruited by The Chapel? Who really is the double agent?  Will the plucky activists trying to publicize the Czech underworld succeed or will they be wiped out by the gangsters beforehand?  What drives the aging female Russian intelligence bureaucrat who is trying to grab Gaines and rub Calvary out in the process?

 And last but not least, will Calvary succeed in making this “one last job” his means to escape from his unscrupulous and underhand Chapel bosses?

The Russians are cold-blooded, the gangsters are vicious and barbaric, the activists dedicated and pure, and our hero is cynical and world-weary. Mercifully, there are no ejection seats in Aston-Martins, no briefcases with tear gas bombs, and no other gadgetry more complicated than pair of radio tracers and a hand drill (don’t ask how it comes into play – believe me, you need to know that like you need a hole in the head!)

Severance Kill is a real throwback – an old-fashioned page-turner filled with chills, thrills and suspense with a minimum of psychoanalysis and a blessed absence of bedroom scenes.  It is short, sweet and to the point, and offers a perfect diversion for the armchair espionage fan who wants to spend a few highly enjoyable hours reading a tightly-plotted adventure yarn.

A couple of writing quirks gave me pause, including Stevens’ reference to bullet holes “spackling” the windows of automobiles (every definition of “to spackle” I could find involved filling holes, not making them). But the book is remarkably free of bad writing and editing, which made it a pleasure to sit down and wolf through like a hungry man eating a blood rare T-bone steak.

Author Tim Stevens
Stevens, a doctor for the British National Health who lives in Essex, has a blog called, appropriately enough, “Dead Drop.”  He has written two earlier spy novels featuring an agent named John Purkiss that I look forward to reading.

Severance Kill can be purchased from Smashwords or for Kindle from Amazon. This is not exactly John Le Carré  but for what it is, it gets a full five nooses from this reviewer.

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