This is the third Luke Carlton thriller by the BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner, following Crisis (2016) and Ultimatum (2018). Carlton is a former Special Forces operative who now works for MI6, the foreign intelligence service of the United Kingdom. The novel begins in the frozen wastes of Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago formerly known as Spitzbergen, and three environmental scientists from the UK Arctic Research Station have been caught out by a blizzard and, too far from their base camp to make it back safely, they seek refuge in a hut. What they find there makes them wish they had braved the snow and wind and tried for home. They find a gravely ill man, and one of the scientists, Dr Sheila Mackenzie gets rather too close to him:
“As Dr Mackenzie turned back to face the sick man, without warning he arched his body forward off the back of the couch with surprising speed. His whole body shook with involuntary convulsions. In that same moment, he coughed violently. His mouth wide open in a rictus gape, he emitted a spray of blood, bile and mucus into the air, his face less than two feet from hers, before collapsing, quivering on to the wooden floor.”
That, then, is the Aliens moment. Events move with terrifying speed. Mackenzie is airlifted back to England and isolation and the wheels of government and the intelligence agencies begin to whirr. Given that there is a large Russian presence in Svalbard, ostensibly for mining operations, the fingers of guilt begin to point towards Moscow, particularly when the virus is found to be man-made.
Gardner doesn’t allow either Carlton or readers pause for either thought or breath. The action zig-zags between the MI6 building at Vauxhall Cross in London, the Arctic Circle, Vilnius, Moscow, GCHQ in Cheltenham and – less exotic but rather more deadly – a down-at-heel industrial estate near Braintree.
This is an impeccably researched novel, as you would expect from someone with Gardner’s experience in the worlds of soldiering, news gathering and international affairs. Most of the story is all-too-horribly plausible, given what we know about what is euphemistically known as ‘mischief’ from Moscow and Beijing, but then Gardner has a surprise for us. The Russians are involved, certainly, but not the Russians we might have expected. To say more would spoil the entertainment but I did find the identity of the conspirators not entirely plausible, given what we know (or think we know) about terror cells operating around the world. But hey-ho, this is not a documentary but a novel – and a bloody good one, too.
Gardner has a box full of thriller writer tools, and he uses them to great effect – punchy, short chapters, many of them shamelessly cliff hanging, whirlwind globe trotting, a convincing (if rather conventional) hero, something of a romantic backstory, breathtaking amounts of cyber-wizardry, and enough military intelligence acronyms to satisfy the geekiest security geek. You won’t be surprised to hear that Carlton eventually triumphs, but I advise caution. The last twelve words of the book might set alarm bells ringing …..
Outbreak is published by Bantam Press and is out now.