The story begins in a kind of deathly silence. A silence not brought about by the absence of noise, but by the inability of anyone to hear the screams of the dying, the crash of falling masonry, and the desperate and distant howl of emergency sirens. The people can’t hear, either because their ears have been rendered temporarily useless by a massive explosion or, more simply, because they are already dead. London copper DC Max Wolfe has been on a shopping trip to buy a new backpack for his daughter, and his bad luck has placed him smack dab in the middle of a shopping London mall as an emergency services helicopter is brought down by a drone, presumably operated by terrorists.
Wolfe survives, and shoulders his way into the hit team which raids a nondescript terraced house in Borodino Street in East London. Their target? To capture two Pakistani brothers who have adapted simple commercially available drones into weapons of terror. Needless to say, the raid does not go according to plan. The lead police officer is shot dead at the outset, by one of the brothers disguised in a niqab. He is eventually shot dead, as is the remaining brother. But there are questions raised about the death of the latter. Was he shot as he was trying to surrender, or was he simply assassinated by a vengeful police marksman? And where are the two ex-Croatian hand grenades which informers say had been sold to the Khan brothers?
The Borodino Street incident becomes something of a cause célèbre. Characters all-too-familiar to us from contemporary real life step into the limelight. We have a charismatic English orator, whose message is that ‘enough is enough’, and now action rather than words is the only way forward. We have a high profile human rights barrister who clearly senses that the Borodino Street killings will be yet another notch on his adversarial gun.
Playing along in the background, like a melancholy country soundtrack, is the heartache of Max Wolfe’s personal life. He is long separated from his wife, but brings up his daughter Scout, and tries to be the best dad he can. When his former wife and her new husband decide that Scout will be better off with them, Wolfe is faced with the most terrible of dilemmas. Does he simply let Scout go into the affluence and normality of a new family, or does he fight the request, in the full knowledge that whatever the court decides, Scout will have to go through a nightmare?
The novel frequently holds you by the hand – no, make that puts you in an arm lock – and takes you to places you would rather not go. Parsons (right) is not someone with a well stocked cupboard full of tea lights, bunches of flowers and anodyne pleas for togetherness. He is not going to link arms with anyone and place these tributes at scenes of murder and carnage. Least of all will he, via Max Wolfe, be tweeting Je Suis Borodino Street any time soon. Some might say that for a humble DC, Max Wolfe certainly seems to get about a bit, but this is an irrelevant criticism, because what he thinks and sees are essential to the story. Wolfe is a a man of deep compassion and perception. Not only is his narrative reliable – it is painfully accurate and candid. Readers have, of course, the option of averting their gaze or thinking about gentle deaths in Cotswold villages, solved by avuncular local bobbies. Those who choose not to turn away from this brutal autopsy of Britain – and specifically London – in 2018 will not, I suggest, feel rejuvenated, life-enhanced or particularly optimistic by the end of this novel. Rather, they will follow the emotional journey of the celebrated wedding guest:
The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone; and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom’s door.
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn.
If there were any doubts before, then this powerful novel will confirm that Tony Parsons sits in his rightful position among the top echelon of contemporary British writers. Girl On Fire is published by Century and will be available on 8th March.