One of my sons was, in his teens, an avid fan of the Andy McNab books and acquired several signed copies of the SAS man’s adventures, and even had a couple of autographed photos of the great man (complete with the obligatory black rectangle across his features, naturally). I have to confess that I didn’t share his enthusiasm, and military thrillers are not normally high on my TBR pile. When the publicists at Michael Joseph sent me a copy of The Break Line by James Brabazon two things aroused my interest. The first was the frankly terrifying background of the author, a documentary film maker and journalist who has been to some of the darkest and most dangerous spots in the world and lived to tell the tale. Second was my admiration for the team at Michael Joseph and my awareness that they don’t, in my experience, publish bad books. If The Break Line had convinced their editorial team, then maybe I should take a closer look?
They were not wrong, and neither was I. This is a breathtaking journey through a world where brave but damaged men are sent into deserts, putrid slums and disease-ridden jungles to do terrible things – mostly to other people who have, for one reason or another, become irrelevant, irritating or downright dangerous.
Who sends them? Why, the dark-suited gentlemen in Whitehall or others in the monolithic 1990s building at 85 Albert Embankment, Vauxhall which houses British intelligence services.
Max McLean is, in all senses, an orphan. Literally, because after his father was killed in a plane crash while engaged in some secret diplomatic mission, his mother cured her grief by filling her pockets with stones and wading out into a deep Irish lake. Metaphorically, because McLean has no anchors, no reference points, no comfort blankets and no safe spaces in the day-to-day world which most of us inhabit. A soldier since he was sixteen, his only family has been The Regiment and, when he bothers to think about it, he could cut his loneliness with a knife.
McLean screws up an assassination assignment through a mixture of conscience and raging hormones, and his penance is to to be sent into the anarchic trou de merde of Sierra Leone. Someone – or something – is disturbing the already fragile equilibrium of that benighted country. McLean is shown a morgue where the corpses have been literally torn apart. This is not cholera, or the dreaded ebola. This is not the work of wild animals, or even drug-crazed teenage Revolutionary United Front rebels with all the moral compass and conscience of a snake.
Exactly what it is that McLean faces will only be learned when you read the book. The instant you begin to read the first-person narrative, you will rightly assume that McLean survives his ordeal, as an action novel has yet to be written where the protagonist convincingly records his own death, but what happens between the first page and the last is a curious but utterly compelling mix of The Heart of Darkness, Indiana Jones, science fiction and visceral horror shot through with musings about the two great imponderables – life and death. Thriller fans will be able to fill their boots with the usual tropes; Le Carré style double and treble dealing at the highest level, fierce fire-fights, fascinating military detail, treacherous Russians and a cataclysmic body count. Brabazon (right) is not, however, simply ticking genre boxes. He shows an assured and convincing style of writing that puts him way above many of his contemporaries in the genre.
I mentioned at the outset that Brabazon is what used to be called, in colonial days, ‘an old Africa hand.’ He has seen the continent at its best and at its very, very worst – and it is the sheer immensity of the latter which casts a monstrous and baleful shadow over the narrative. The Break Line is published by Michael Joseph and was published in all formats on 26th July.