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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. . .

Saturday, June 8, 2013

To Catch a Rat!

By Tim Stevens

Kindle Edition, 2012

I have to admit, when it comes to reading pulp-type fiction, I am a sucker for a good series. There is something so comfortable about slipping into a yarn with familiar characters. I have always been that way; when I was a kid, I warped my mind permanently by reading everything in the public library by Andre Norton, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert Howard. (At least this shows that my predilection for pulp series isn't associated with a slide into age-onset senility!)

So it was with pleasure that I picked up the John Purkiss novels written by Tim Stevens, a physician in England who cranks out just about as good a spy tale as anybody in the racket. 

I first learned of Stevens when I read and reviewed his most recent novel, Severance Kill, for my other blog, Lurid Tales. It featured a neatly drawn and fully-rounded hero named Martin Calvary who is a professional assassin tasked with eliminating the bad actors of the British secret services: moles, double-agents and other unsavory types. At the time, I described Calvary as "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."
I liked the book inordinately and learned from Dead Drop, Stevens' blog, that he had written two earlier novels featuring another counter-intelligence agent named John Purkiss. As I said at the time, I looked forward to reading them, too.

Ratcatcher author Tim Stevens is the Real Deal -- read his stuff!

But life gets in the way and I never got around to looking at the two earlier books -- until this month, when I found myself ripping through a Purkiss short story and two novels during a 60-hour reading jag that didn't end until I had consumed the last page of the second book.

I will review all three over the next couple of weeks, but let me start with Purkiss Number One, a tasty little confection called Ratcatcher that introduces the character and lays out part of his back story for readers.

Purkiss is a "ratcatcher," a sort of super Internal Affairs officer for British Intelligence. He works "off the books" -- the Queen pays the bills and drafts the checks that cover his salary, but his official records in England show only that he formerly worked for the Special Intelligence Services; his counter-intelligence  position is not officially affiliated with MI5 or MI6 or any other British intelligence agencies.

His job is simple, at least from a superficial point of view: he is charged with tracking down corrupt members of the secret services, getting the evidence necessary to prove their guilt, and taking them out of circulation so they can be tried and imprisoned.

In Ratcatcher, Purkiss is sent to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, to look for a former colleague who murdered another intelligence agent but was inexplicably released from prison after serving only a tiny part of his sentence. The supposition is that the baddie is engaged in some heinous plot, and the evidence early on is strong that it involves the disruption of a ceremonial meeting between the presidents of Russia and Estonia to announce a rapprochement and cooperative agreement between the two countries.

What complicates the situation is that the spy Purkiss is chasing is a former friend -- and that the agent he killed was Purkiss's fiancé. In addition, British intelligence already has a team already working in Tallinn that seems likely to get in Purkiss's way, and he is also countered by a secret militia of former Soviet military who appear to be pursuing their own plot to disrupt the meeting.

Like any good espionage thriller, the book piles triple crosses on double crosses and nobody appears to be who they say they are.  Bad guys can be unmasked as good guys and even the people least likely to be twisted can turn out to be traitors. Until the final pages, everybody but Purkiss could conceivably be a villain out to wreck the ceremony, assassinate one or both of the statesmen present and kill John Purkiss in the process.

Stevens has a sure hand for the cliffhanger and is deft at keeping the reading flipping those pages. Unlike some other thriller writers, his stuff is harder to fit into one of the subgenres that tend to dominate the field (see the essay below).  His agents frequently engage in hand-to-hand combat, but he doesn't lard his books with a lot of martial arts terminology or drift into "Gray's Anatomy" style discussions of the effect of each blow or shot. 

Descriptions of military technology -- and a humdinger is featured in Ratcatcher -- are kept mercifully short and succinct. I'm no expert of spy equipment but the surveillance techniques he has his agents use are basic and authentic, and his understanding of gadgets such as GPS tracking and night vision seems to this amateur to be either accurate or at least plausible.

In fact descriptions of all sort are tight and forced to carry their weight in the narrative. This works fine, because Stevens can sketch a scene better in a sentence or two than other writers can with an entire chapter.

On top of his skill at turning out a solid technical spy yarn, Stevens has something you can't get by sitting in the military reading room at the library and studying Jane's Infantry or Naval Weapons: excellent timing. His stories zip right along at a clip spritely enough to keep the reader's mind from wandering in a search for weak plot points, characterization flaws, physically impossible action and other roadbumps that can show up on the road to the last page.

And while many page-turners depend on plot or a quirky protagonist to hold a reader's interest, Stevens does us the old-fashioned favor of putting some damn nice writing in his stories. The first chapter of Ratcatcher provides an excellent example.  It opens with the phrase "His world turned on its head for the second time at precisely ten eighteen p.m.," then dives immediately into his arrest while working undercover in Croatia and on his way to a meeting with a crooked arms dealer in Croatia.

To avoid spoilers, suffice to say Stevens returns to the world-turning event in the last few paragraphs of the chapter, closing the distance between the beginning and end of the section neatly and propelling the reader into the second chapter in the process.  It's a technique he manages to bring off time and again in this book, and it not only increases a reader's engagement in the story, but also keeps the plot unfolding smoothly and quickly.  

And watch the last three paragraphs when you get there.  Stevens has left the careful reader an Easter egg of sorts in a passage that ties directly back to the title of the novel.

Tim Stevens is the real deal. I can't recommend Ratcatcher and his other John Purkiss thrillers strongly enough.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! I haven't had the pleasure of reading his work yet, but I will!