by Neil Lancaster
Series: Tom Novak Thriller, #1Kindle Edition, 314 pg.
Burning Chair Publishing, 2019
Read: May 15 – 17, 2019
So Tom Novak came to the UK as a refugee from Bosnia at the age of twelve and was raised in Scotland by a wonderful couple. He joined the military, did a lot more than many soldiers had to and then came home and became a cop. He’s driven and focused — one could argue that he’s obsessed with the job — he’s talented and frustrated with the attitude of many of those above him in ranks and how little they’re able to accomplish for the common good. When given a chance to use his background to infiltrate a group of Serbian criminals who are engaging in human trafficking, prostitution, and immigration fraud he jumps at it. The primary target is a lawyer who is defrauding the government, innocent refugees, and young girls — while making a lot of money — but if he can take out the Serbs funneling girls to him, well that’s just icing on the cake.
I loved the pacing of the undercover work — it’s not one of those where the UC officer meets the bad guy and almost instantly gets taken into their confidence — there’s work, there’s time involved. Now, Lancaster takes care of most of that work and time with a time jump and a summary sentence or two. But that’s okay, the book would’ve slowed down considerably and added a few dozen pages to show us all that. He’s not giving us a play by play of UC work here — and he has the qualifications to do that — it’s not that kind of book, it’s a Thriller. He makes the nod to reality, and then keeps things moving so that the book can get to the exciting stuff.
It’s after the time jump that things go horribly, horribly wrong. Evidence goes missing and the bad guys know who Novak really is and put out a hit on him. Clearly, the police have a leak and Novak can think of only one way to survive — and maybe uncover the leak and still take care of his criminal targets — that’s by (title alert!) by Going Dark. He hops off the grid, grabs a burner phone and a phony ID he’s had ready for just such a contingency, makes a call or two to people he can trust and sets about doing what he can (which is plenty).
Like many action heroes, focus on martial arts, physical fitness, weapons and police procedure doesn’t leave a lot of time for things like learning a lot about tech, hacking, and the like. So one of the favors he calls in (from outside the police force, because he really doesn’t trust anyone there right now) results in getting loaned this nice young computer savant named Pet. Pet’s awesome — she can do pretty much everything that Novak wants, and doesn’t care what rules she breaks while doing so — and is perfectly willing to risk her neck for this relative stranger. Sure, she strains credulity a bit, but she’s entertaining enough that you really don’t care (besides, just about everyone else in the book is as realistic as you could hope for. Every thriller needs a couple of larger than life characters, might as well make it a fun techie girl in addition to the super-solider/cop).
With Pet’s help, Novak goes on the hunt for everyone involved in his precarious situation — both within and without the Metropolitan Police. And you know it’s not going to go well for anyone he finds.
You’ve really got three criminal groups at work here — the Serbs (a couple of brothers, their mother, and eventually their father); the lawyer and his brother; and the corrupt police. The Serbs are your typical rough and tumble crooks who don’t care much about their victims, the people they use or the necessity of violence — they know what they want and will do what they can to get it. Links to war criminals and larger criminal groups back home, make them more dangerous. You’ve seen the type before, you’ll see them again — and Lancaster nails their characterizations. He possibly does better with the sleazoid lawyer. It took no time at all for me to want bad things to happen to him, and then things got worse. He feels all-too-real and all-too-horrible. The same sentence could be applied to their inside-the-police tools, but I’m not going to say anything more about this group because I’ll end up giving something away. So, let’s just leave it there. Really this is a pretty impressive group of opponents for our fledgling hero to go up against, larger-than-life assistant or not.
The thing that sets Tom Novak apart from so many super-cops/soldiers/spies that the Thriller world are his particular background and his current psychology. The two are likely related, but lets ignore that. While you can’t say his childhood was as horrible as many are, or as it could’ve been given some of the events that surrounded him. It left an impression on him, it set him apart from his peers and still shapes him — he’s quick to tell anyone who says something that he’s not Scottish, or English, or anything else he’s tagged with. He may have adopted (willingly or not) his new country, but that’s not who he is at his core. More than once — particularly after things get violent — that we’re shown Novak’s emotional/psychological state. It’s not what one would expect — it’s not what he’d prefer to see — but it’s who he is. He knows he’s different, and his self-awareness helps the reader get insight. I don’t want to get into details at this point, but I really hope that Lancaster and his readers get to explore this more.
This is Lancaster’s first novel and it shows some, but really he’s pretty impressive. I really thought that early on, Lancaster had set up a particular ending. And boy did he not deliver at all. It wasn’t as narratively satisfying or expected as what I thought — but it was a lot more realistic and practical. And Novak is nothing if not practical, so it was fitting. And I always appreciate when an author makes you think you’re going to get something and gives you the opposite (in a way that’s justifiable, and not lazy or clumsy, anyway). Technically, there was an awkward phrase or two, but nothing major — I did think he stumbled pretty early by giving us the same information in two back-to-back paragraphs. But those were minor hiccups and it wasn’t long before I was too wrapped up in the story to remember them.
This is the second book I’ve read recently largely based on the recommendation of Ian Patrick, at this point, I’m thinking of just paying him a monthly fee to curate my TBR. It’s just a fun read, with the right amount of touches of realism to ground the more fantastic elements. The undercover stuff feels authentic (but what do I really know); the bureaucracy reeks of realism (but DS Novak’s complaints seem different than Sam Batford’s, Peter Grant’s, or Washington Poe’s — to name a few); the inciting crime feels as “ripped from the headlines” as anything that Dick Wolf has done; the characters are solid; pacing and twists are as well executed as you could hope and the action is right up there with the seasoned pro’s. All in all, I’m not sure what more you could want from a debut — I’m hoping I get the chance to see more from Lancaster and more about Novak tout de suite!