Spy Thriller Review by Shane ‘C' Whaley
Former Cabinet Minister Alan Johnson has turned his hand to fiction. The Late Train to Gipsy Hill (2021) is Alan Johnson’s first foray into fiction writing following the success of his political memoirs. I was intrigued to see how a former cabinet minister and Home Secretary would go about writing a spy thriller. The Home Secretary has regular meetings with the Security Services (MI5 and MI6), so I was curious how he would portray them in his debut novel.
Before we tackle the plot and characters, I must caution you that if you are looking for a heavy dialogue-laden political thriller, then this is not the book for you. This story is written more in the vein of Eric Ambler than Michael Dobbs (House of Cards.) By that, I mean the protagonist is an unlikely hero, a civvie, who finds himself caught up in a deadly cat and mouse chase which involves not just London’s Metropolitan police but the former KGB, now known as the FSB, a hardened gang of Russian hoods, MI5 and Parcelforce.
The main plot is based on a Russian filmmaker who has been poisoned in a London hotel, the fictitious Strand Hotel. Yes, memories of Litvinenko, but the twist is the wrong Russian has been killed. This sparks a hunt for the blonde waitress, who we later learn is a Ukrainian working illegally in the UK.
What follows is a series of grisly hits and snatch attempts across London as the Russian underworld seeks revenge with the help of, yes, you guessed it, a high-ranking mole working in the higher echelons of the London police.
Now here is where the Ambler reference comes in. Our hero is Gary Nelson, a nondescript young man who moved to London from Aylesbury to seek adventure.
Gary admires the same blonde woman every morning on his train to work. Gary is harmless, and his observation of the blonde applying her make-up every morning does not come across as lecherous but as rather innocent.
This girl is central to the plot and turns Gary’s world upside down, and he quickly becomes embroiled in hiding her from the Russians.
‘This lad isn’t working for the Russians or the security services. He’s a young clerical assistant from Aylesbury who’s somehow got himself mixed up in all this. Dale and O’Farrell may suspect him of being “The Spy Who Came in from Accounts Payable”, but they know nothing about him.’
Spy thrillers like this are tricky to review as there are twists around each corner, and I don’t want to wander into Spoilerstrasse. Let's just say I enjoyed the twists and turns, and none of them felt unrealistic or jarring. The only eye-brow-raising moments for me were the occasional dust ups with the Russians, it's hard to believe an average Joe could fend off a violent hood, but this did not get in the way of a well-written story.
For a first go, Mr. Johnson exceeds his brief and has written an exciting, suspenseful novel that I could not put down. I was late to a party because I just had to finish the last few chapters!
The Late Train to Gipsy Hill is riveting and exciting, with plenty of intrigue and suspense.
Alan Johnson has a second book out shortly titled ‘One Of Our Ministers Are Missing’ it includes a character from Gipsy Hill, but I won’t reveal who it is other than to say it is not Gary. I am excited to read how Alan Johnson develops that character.
I have pre-ordered Alan Johnson’s second book on the strength of this debut novel. So yes, I am recommending it to all fans of spy thrillers.