Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Book of the Month: A Gentleman's Game, by Greg Rucka

Readers may already know Greg Rucka from his graphic novel, White Out, about murder in the Antarctic, which was subsequently turned into a feature film by Dominic Sena. Like White Out, A Gentleman's Game features a strong central female character, in this case Tara Chase, a Minder for the UK's Secret Intelligence Service (aka SIS or MI6).

Tara Chase first made her debt as a character in the comic series Queen & Country, the first two collected volumes of which I would highly recommend. Rucka wrote the script for these, although I have to say the art was so-so and the third volume was really inferior to the first two. In it Chase is a Minder, basically an operative for MI6 who stays in London but then is sent overseas to carry out special operations for the Firm which its on site agents are not trained for. Frequently this involves assassination, but not always.

Deadlier than the male.
There are always three Minders on stand by in the comics, and by the time we reach A Gentleman's Game, Tara has been promoted up to Minder One, making her the senior operative. Unlike Queen & Country, A Gentleman's Game is a novel, so there are no pictures to look at. Given the unprepossessing art in the comics, this is no great loss.

AGG was published in 2004, which makes it somewhat apocryphal, as it begins with a terrorist atrocity on the London underground, perpetrated by a trio of suicide bombers. The similarities with what actually happened in July 2005, a year later, are disturbing, right down to one of the same subway stations - King's Cross - being targeted.

AGG picks up where Queen & Country left off, with Tara now in the Minder One hot seat as the UK government considers its response, and eventually alights on a plan to assassinate a radical cleric in Yemen. However, the book is not just about Chase, but also tracks the progress of a young English Muslim convert, from religious scholar in Egypt, through to his translation into a jihadi in Saudi Arabia. The two plots run parallel with each other, although the two characters' lives intersect only twice.

AGG is a gritty book - the turf wars between the various foreign intelligence agencies are colourful, to say the least, as is the ongoing rivalry between SIS and the Secret Service (aka MI6), inevitably leading to a violent clash at Ashford International station.

It is a well-written book, and the politics and motivations of the factions involved ring true to me; AGG spends a lot of time inside the jihadi groups in Saudi and Yemen, and Rucka, an American, has obviously spent a lot of time reading up on them post-911. It is a little dated however - only three years after 9/11, Osama Bin Laden is still alive and the war in Iraq is ongoing.

There are no James Bond antics here, no gadgets. Warfare is carried out frequently at close quarters - a .22 pistol is preferred for an assassination to anything bigger in one case, and in another someone is killed with a rolled up newspaper! Having said that, when you're outnumbered 40 to 1, nothing beats a Claymore mine.

The Minders in AGG are a closely knit team, perhaps too closely knit, and seem to worship their boss Croker, who spends most of his time chain smoking and drinking malt whisky in his office, that's when he's not getting into fights with his bosses, or trading information with Angela Cheng, the head of CIA station in London, who herself has little better to do than keep tabs on MI6. British intelligence is generally presented as being buffeted between the whims of Downing Street and the commercial interests of UK companies in the Middle East, not to mention the desires of the CIA.

In all this Mossad emerges smelling of roses, as they initially pick up vital information on the location of the target, which they try to trade for a follow up hit on an Egyptian terrorist. The Israelis are painted by Rucka as the most reasonable of a bad bunch, generally cooperative, keen to get results, under-financed and generally frustrated by the constraints imposed upon them by the Americans. The Mossad agents Landau and Borosovsky steal the show as a double act, and ought to get their own series on the strength of this outing.

The Minders themselves are an odd mix; Croker admits they are hard to find, and that those most qualified for the job are frequently bright enough to decline it. Not all come from a military background, some have criminal records, and they're not above a bit of burglary, vandalism and other riotous behavior in their spare time. Rucka portrays them as psychologically messed up, highly trained but largely expendable human weapons who can be plausibly denied if they end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. This translates itself into individuals with an on again, off again relationship with their superiors, and a limited life expectancy in the field.

Is it worth reading? I'd say only if you read the comics and like those enough to continue. If not, then don't bother with A Gentleman's Game.

1 comment:

  1. Fun fact: Greg Rucka also wrote the 1990's Handbook for Call of Cthulhu!