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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, December 21, 2013

A Rifleman's Stalking the Sick and the Lame in Tim Stevens' Latest John Purkiss Thriller

(John Purkiss Series)
By Tim Stevens
250 pages
(Nov. 13, 2013; Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.)

John Purkiss, the "Ratcatcher" of Tim Stevens' eponymously named debut novel, is back on the job in Stevens'  excellent sequel. Those who would threaten British security had best be at the top of their game if they plan to escape his relentless gaze.

Purkiss, as you may recall from my earlier reviews of Ratcatcher and Delivering Calaban, is an ex-spy who works "off the books" of the British intelligence services, tracking down moles and traitors. He gets his assignments from another idiosyncratic intelligence professional: an older veteran of British espionage named Quentin Vale who, as a black man in the service, is something of an oddity.

Purkiss collects the evidence necessary to put the baddies in prison for long sentences. When necessary, he kills them outright, though with more regret and circumspection than his fictional counterpart, James Bond, the superspy created by the late Ian Fleming.

In Jokerman, he ends up on the case from a slightly different angle: he is asked to find the title character, a top-level traitor at MI5, the larger and better funded of Britain's two espionage agencies. And his warrant for the job comes from Five's deputy director, a woman named Maureen Kasabian.

Initially Purkiss declines to hunt Jokerman, pleading that anything he finds will be viewed with suspicion within English intelligence circles because he is a former member of MI6, the smaller of the two agencies and its ferocious rival.

But when a sniper attempts an assassination at Purkiss' home, in the process critically wounding a Purkiss associate named Kendrick during a chess game, the Ratcatcher is determined to ferret out the person behind the attack.

(Incidentally, it is the assassin's use of a rifle that gives the book -- and Purkiss's investigation -- the Jokerman name. The title is a reference to the Bob Dylan song, which contains the lyrics:

(Well, the rifleman's stalking the sick and the lame
Preacherman seeks the same, who'll get there first is uncertain 
Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks
Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain
False-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin
Only a matter of time 'til the night comes stepping in.)

Make no mistake, Jokerman is a classic page-turner, the kind of book that will have you reading through the night to find out what happens next.  

The action is slam-bang, starting with the initial assassination and proceeding through a series of shootings, bombings and hand-to-hand engagements that put Purkiss at risk of death. In one brief section only a few pages long, four people are killed and Purkiss ends up in a struggle for survival with one of the villains.

The paranoia is heaped on by the dump truck load, with menace provided by a private security company that operates in the Mideast, a group of former British paratroopers, and a coterie of untrustworthy spies who come under suspicion by Purkiss as the plot zig-zags.

Author Tim Stevens dots every "i" and crosses every "t" in his terrific new novel, Jokerman. (Photo courtesy of Amazon.com)

Stevens dots every "i" and crosses every "t" in the process, generating some writing that made me smile at its stylishness, originality and clarity. For example, the following description sets up a confrontation between the Ratcatcher and a group of Middle Eastern thugs in London:

"At the top of a narrow flight of stairs that doubled back upon itself, he found a door with an opaque glass panel, like the entrance to a private eye's office in a noir film. Cheap lettering had been scratched off the panel, leaving a ghostly trace. Beyond, dark and blurred shapes shifted."

There doesn't seem to be an unnecessary word in this passage, which nicely establishes a note of mystery with its "ghostly trace" of scratched-off letters (what did they once say?), its "dark and blurred shapes" behind a frosted door "like the entrance to a private eye's office in a noir film," and the touch of onomatopoeia in the words "shapes shifted." In three sentences -- a mere 53 words -- he excellently manages to put the reader in the proper mood for the brutal clash that occurs a few sentences later.

As a thriller writer myself, I bookmarked this passage for future study. I admit that I am jealous of Stevens' ability to come up with descriptive passages like this, not to mention believable characters, plausible plots and credible dialog; that he seems to be able to do so time after time drives me half mad with envy.

As the hunt for the Jokerman proceeds, Stevens manages to double-cross his readers using red herrings to hide the identities of two villains so effectively that I literally gasped when they were revealed. To me this is a rare treat: most thriller writers handle this type of plot twist in a clumsy manner, telegraphing the actual baddie so obviously that only a dolt falls for the fakes. Not Stevens. 

Some readers may feel Stevens takes up too much time and space in Jokerman explaining the rivalry between the two British intelligence services. (Suffice to say that the clash between the two is not only bureaucratic but also cultural; the closest thing we have to it in the U.S. is the tenuous and unfriendly relationship between the FBI and the CIA).

But the rivalry serves a critical function in the plot of the novel by clearly establishing that the agencies are constitutionally incapable -- and unwilling -- to engage in the close cooperation finding and stopping a high-ranking traitor would otherwise receive.

I consider Stevens one of the best writers of spy thrillers working today. The previous two Purkiss novels are right up there at the top of a genre that boasts more than a few of the greatest authors who have ever strung together a declarative sentence, including John Le Carre, Graham Green and Adam Hall.

Jokerman follows them into the canon. I simply can't recommend Tim Stevens' stuff enough!

(Note: Stevens has new material coming out soon, so keep an eye on this space. Or check his blog, "Dead Drop" for advance notice.)

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