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THE SHOT . . . Between the covers

The late Philip Kerr is justifiably renowned for his magisterial series of fourteen historical books featuring the sardonic German copper Bernie Gunther. Kerr, however, was good enough – and confident enough – to write superior stand-alone novels. I read one such – Hitler’s Peace –  earlier this year and if you click the link it will take you to the review.

41PpZhwb-wLQuercus has just republished The Shot, a 1999 novel by Kerr. We are in America and it is the late autumn of 1960. In the pop charts, The Drifters were singing Save The Last Dance For Me, and a youthful looking senator called John Fitzgerald Kennedy had just won the election to become the thirty-fifth President of The United States.

Just a hundred miles or so from the tip of the Florida peninsula lies the island of Cuba, but its traditional role as puppet state of America, complete with Mafia-owned casinos, sex clubs and hedonistic lifestyles came to an  end in 1958 when communist rebels, led by Fidel Castro, finally overturned the regime of Fulgencio Batista. Cubans have fled in their thousands to Florida, while the American government looks across the waters for signs of Russian influence over the fledgling state.

Central to the story of The Shot is an American assassin who calls himself Tom Jefferson. We never learn his real identity. We only know that his aliases are always those of American Presidents, such as Franklin Pierce and Martin Van Buren. Tom is a military trained sniper who earns his living killing political targets by blowing off the tops of their skulls with a .30 calibre bullet.

PKAs ever with a Philip Kerr novel, we are in a world populated by a mix of fictional characters and real-life figures. Among the latter are Jack Kennedy himself and the Mob boss Sam Giancana. Giancana hires Jefferson to assassinate Fidel Castro so that the revolution will collapse, and the mafioso can return to their old lucrative ways. Jefferson does his homework and seems all set to put a bullet in Castro’s head.

In the wake of 22nd November 1963, Jack Kennedy achieved temporary sainthood, and it is only relatively recently that his less-than-saintly private life has become common knowledge. When one of his exploits affects Tom Jefferson personally, the whole plan to kill Castro is turned on its head. Jefferson goes missing, and becomes the object of a manhunt by the FBI, the CIA and the Mafia.

This novel shows Philip Kerr at his wondrous best. The historical characters are made flesh in front of our eyes, while the fictional participants are vividly convincing. Kerr’s grasp of history is immense, and he serves up a winning mixture of The Day Of The Jackal and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. The Shot is out now.

THE ARTEMIS FILE . . . Between the covers

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I redt takes a very ingenious – not to say devious mind – to fashion a fiction plot which meshes together a whole bagful of disparate elements to make a satisfying whole that challenges the imagination but does not exceed it in possibility. Adam Loxley has done just that in his latest thriller The Artemis File. George Wiggins is Mr Ordinary. He lives in what would have been called, years ago, a bijou residence in the twee Kentish town of Tenterden. He is not Mr Stupid, however. He travels into ‘town’ each day to sit at his desk in Fleet Street where he composes the daily crossword for The Chronicle under his pseudonym Xerxes. Aficionados know that in reality, all that is left of the newspaper industry in Fleet Street are the buildings, and the use of the term to denote popular journalism, but we can forgive Loxley for having the good, old-fashioned Chronicle hanging on by the skin of its teeth when all its fellows have decamped to Wapping or soulless suburbs somewhere off a dual carriageway.

front-cover-finalWhen George has a rather startling experience in his local pub after a couple of pints of decent beer, the other elements of the story – MI5, the CIA, Russian agents, immaculately dressed but ruthless Whitehall civil servants and, most crucially, the most infamous unsolved incident of the late 20th century – are soon thrown into the mix. Such is George’s conformity, it is easily compromised, and he is blackmailed into writing a crossword, the answers to which are deeply significant to a very select group of individuals who sit at the centres of various spiders’ webs where they tug the strands which control the national security of the great powers.

 

G rdeorge Wiggins might have been easily duped and he has few means to fight back, but he recruits an old chum from the Chronicle whose knowledge of the historical events of the 1990s proves key to unraveling the mystery of who wanted the crossword published – and why. While the pair rescue a dusty file from an obscure repository and pore over its contents, elsewhere a much more visceral struggle is playing out. A ruthless MI5 contract ‘fixer’ called Craven is engaged on a courtly dance of death with a former CIA agent, current American operatives and their Russian counterparts.

One of the joys of this book is Loxley’s delight in guiding us through various parts of England that he clearly loves. Winchester, the Vale of Itchen, various ‘secret’ London places – we track the characters as they play out the fateful – and frequently bloody – drama against fascinating backdrops. We are linked into real events such as the mysterious death of intelligence ‘spook’ Gareth Williams, and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. We learn that the truth behind the events of 31st August 1997 has become an chip in an international poker game with world peace at stake. Just when we think that things have been wrapped up sweetly, however, Loxley has one final ace to play, and he lays it down with, literally, the last few words of the book.

The Artemis File is published by Matador and is available now. Adam Loxley lives in the Weald of Kent. Other than creative writing his passions are making music, world cinema and contemporary art. The first book in this series was The Teleios Ring, and the concluding novel The Oedipus Gate is currently in manuscript.

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