It may be strange – especially as I’ve often bemoaned those that don’t read outside of or exclude genres from their reading – but the home-grown, UK-based thrillers have never been something that have appealed to me. Perhaps it’s my own mundane interaction with the local constabulary or TV shows likes The Bill or Motorway Traffic Cops (or whatever it’s called) but I’d not really seen the potential for a gripping read there in comparison to – say – an alcoholic Norwegian detective hunting murderers in the snow or – say (again) – one-man armies called Jack chasing justice in other far-flung places….
But…. then there’s Wicked Game by Matt Johnson. And it changes that preconception I’d held and it’s a wonderful thing when a book can do that.
Wicked Game finds Robert Finlay as he leaves the Royal Protection team and heads back to uniformed Police work in his search for a quiet, normal, life with his wife and their young daughter.
Let’s be honest; no character in a book or film that’s looking for such a thing gets it – we all know how many detectives get pulled into stopping Armageddon just days before retirement and are all too well aware that Sergeant Murtaugh is “too old for this shit”. We know from the off, then, that trouble is coming down the track for Robert, especially after the explosive start to the novel, and Wicked Game doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the drama. Finlay is far from the standard ex-army turned police officer he’s lead others to believe – he’s an ex-SAS officer with a troubled past that’s now kicking down the door to his longed-for quiet life and demanding his attention. Police officers are being killed. Police officers from his own SAS regiment. Secretive meetings with MI5 follow, luring him in – then there’s an attempt on his own life and it quickly becomes clear that these murders won’t stop until either Finlay or the killer are stopped…. but what’s the motive behind the murders? Why is Finlay a target and who can be trusted?
Far from a standard game of cat and mouse, Wicked Game is a surprisingly complex mystery and one that reaches back in time to bring the old enemies of the past into the terrifying now with an array of action sequences, cliff-hangers and surprises that make for a great read.
The narrative split between first and third person works well (Finlay’s voice is a convincing narration and lends plenty of emotional ballast to the story too) as well as very effective in keeping the reader gripped – especially as the tension grows and those third-person characters such as Grahamslaw are in possession of information Finlay isn’t at crucial, life-threatening points.
They say write what you know and it’s clear that Matt Johnson is writing from experience (having served as a soldier and with the Met for 25 years). When it comes to detailing the action and police-side sequences, as it were, Johnson’s knowledge and insight give the novel a real sense of authenticity. He does a great job of delivering some very real and genuine sequences populated by characters underscored by a convincing authority and precision that can only come from actually knowing those people such characters are likely composites of.
But there’s more than just that insider knowledge and attention to details at play here and it’s that which makes Wicked Game well worth a read – Matt Johnson has a very real talent and gift for thriller writing. Wicked Game cracks along at a great pace with plenty of gripping and original plot twists and turns with a finale that wouldn’t be out of place in a book with a protagonist called Reacher.
With Wicked Game Matt Johnson skilfully weaves together these two facets to create a compellingly gritty and convincingly real thriller.
Thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy and do check out the other stops on the Wicked Game blog tour: