Professional assassin. That sounds an interesting job. The hours are flexible. You get to meet no end of fascinating people. Carry a length of piano wire. Wear wigs and stuff. And there’s a bit of international travel.
Of course there are downsides. You never know when that simple ‘hit’ is going to blow up in your face and suddenly you’re on the run, a beautiful MI5 spy at your side, with the world and his wife trying to kill you.
In these morally ambiguous times, being an assassin is a growth market, in the crime thriller fiction market at least, and the latest conflicted tough-guy on the shelf is Adam Chase’s Joshua Thane – or, as he’s known to his clients, Hex.
Let’s consider the blurb:
Joshua Thane, aka Hex, is a freelance assassin. His next target is Dr Mary Wilding, a British microbiologist suspected of trading secrets. Breaking into her house, he discovers someone has beaten him to it – she’s already dead.The portable hard drive he’s ordered to steal is also missing.
About to flee the scene, Hex comes face-to-face with Wilding’s teenage son. According to normal rules of engagement, Hex should kill the boy to protect his own identity and professional reputation, but turbulent memories from his past trigger a crisis of conscience.
Bewildered by his actions, Hex allows the boy to live and flees; yet his nightmare has barely begun. With his own life under threat for apparently botching the job, Hex embarks on an international quest to find the real killer and redeem his soul. Using his old contacts, including crime boss Billy Squeeze, he unravels a criminal conspiracy to develop and detonate an ethnically specific biological weapon. Rogue state, terrorist, or organised crime, whoever has the information, holds the power to deal to the highest bidder.
And the British security services want it back…
Wicked Game is a solid thriller, the first in a series about Hex, who gets involved in an international plot way above his pay-grade.
Despite the state-of-the-art bioweapon narrative that powers the plot, Wicked Game has an old-school, Eric Ambler charm. Hex’s relationship with beautiful MI5 lady McCallen has a spiky energy to it – Hex and McCallen hurl a whole freezeful of cold stares at each other in a futile attempt to disguise their mutual attraction – and the first-person narrative and dialogue is terse and knowing.
Chase builds Hex’s secret world well. The tradecraft and procedures used by the intelligence services ring true. I particularly liked the way all the secret services arrive en masse in their blacked-out vehicles to linger at the scene of the crime.
One of my frustrations about many thriller novels is the way they never add enough suspects to the mix, but Chase’s narrative is suitably twisty-turny, as Hex races from one dodgy character to another in a bid to foil the conspiracy, notching up a few juicy candidates for the role of unpleasant antagonist.
As an assassin, Hex is a curiously sensitive and vulnerable soul and, like many a conflicted hired-killer before him, his doubts and inner turmoil lead him towards a plan of action that benefits the Greater Good.
But character is action, so they say, and I’d like to have seen Hex work harder to get to the bottom of it all. He’s got plenty of people who are willing to fill in the gaps of his knowledge in explanatory passages. Some more sustained peril, a few more violent hoops for Hex to jump through – the action scenes are very effective – would befit a man with such a hazardous vocation.
But any novel about a hired killer is a balancing act, we’re asked to admire people who do a despicable thing for a living, and Chase does well to get us to like Hex in this debut adventure by giving him a tragic past, and by pricking his stony conscience in the face of a conspiracy of abominable proportions. Wicked Game is an enjoyable addition to a burgeoning genre.
Like the intelligence community, publishing can be a shadowy business, there are wheels within wheels, and the question is: just who is Adam Chase? We’ll find out later in the week.