Reviewed by Ian Lipke
He used to stop terrorists…Now he is one. So goes the blurb on the front cover of Stephen Leather’s Takedown. Is there anyone left in doubt about the genre to which this book is likely to belong? It’s in-your-face action all the way. Leather is in the entertainment business and writes novels that meet the needs of a large percentage of the reading population. He does the job well, as the biographical notes adorning his publisher’s website attest with unbridled enthusiasm.
Stephen Leather is one of the UK’s most successful thriller writers, an ebook and Sunday Times bestseller and author of the critically acclaimed Dan ‘Spider’ Shepherd series and the Jack Nightingale supernatural detective novels. His titles have topped the Amazon Kindle charts in the UK and the US. His bestsellers have been translated into fifteen languages and he has also written for television.
If you’ve read any of Leather’s many titles before, you will know that you’re in for a wild ride. Takedown does not disappoint. The plot is multilayered as usual. A British SAS soldier goes rogue and makes his services available to one of the leaders of ISIS. Of course, he is brought immediately without fuss into the presence of this criminal that the world’s security services have been hunting for so long without so much as a sighting, and agrees to undertake a mission that will convince his new colleague of his genuine, burning desire to kill people in the West.
His success means that a mysterious Charlotte Button, the head of an agency too secret to have a name, has no option but to put her best man Lex Harper on the job. But wait! I said the plot was multilayered, and so it is. Apart from saving the West from a major political embarrassment, Harper must also help his boss out of a sticky situation, for somebody is trying to gain access to three flash drives. These drives hold information so important that, in the wrong hands, Charlotte Button could face a life term in prison.
I described the plot as multilayered; we’ve identified two. There’s another layer. One of Lex Harper’s lady friends has been attacked in a most vicious and cowardly manner. Lex teaches the culprits a severe lesson, thus incurring the wrath of a very powerful Russian gangster, who is not going to allow Lex to smash in the face of a favourite son and ram a bottle up said son’s rectal passage, not if rich daddy can do something about that.
As they used to say in all the savvy teenage manuals: it’s on for young and old!
There is no need to tell any more of the plot. It’s meant to do nothing more than provide readers with a few hours of escape from the humdrum. The book is all about plot. None of the characters change—the villains are poisonous people. The actions of the good guys might mean inflicting severe injury or even ending a life but are sanctioned by higher authority. The actions of the Thai police at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport illustrate this point well.
Harper folded his arms but said nothing.
“It seems you played the Good Samaritan and paid the young lady’s hospital bill…the Russians don’t know your name yet, Lek…but they’re not stupid. Do you have any idea who they are?”
“They beat the shit out of young girls, I know that much.”
“Valentin Rostov and Grigory Lukin are very well protected, Lek.”
“I thought I was protected, Somchai.”
“You are, Lek. Which is why you and I are having this conversation and you’re not dead in a ditch somewhere…”
Readers are disposed to accept the good guys as they are—impossibly talented in specialised fields, unbelievably brave in the face of incontestable odds, outstandingly capable as leaders of men, and beyond comparison in hand to hand fighting. Where does this author find such people?
Stephen Leather appears to have discovered the formula to lasting entertainment if his sales figures are any guide. Yet I wonder and I doubt. It is easy for writers to believe their own publicity, to ease back on the research, to make assumptions.
Leather’s earlier novels were much better scripted. This book begins with the rogue agent but no explanation why he has decided to betray all he stood for. Then come the twin issues: how to stop the villain while saving Charlotte’s lovely derrière. Contemporaneously, the sadistic Russian has to be sorted. Leather begins well and the first half of the book is exciting, especially so when we watch the efforts the Russians are making to find this criminal who smashed up their boss’s boy. At that point Charlotte has to react immediately to potential disaster again and again, and we’re learning more about the story of the three flash drives.
But then, the story becomes unidimensional. It has only one path to follow—perhaps the author’s laziness gets in his way. Leather forgets about the Russian menace, and page after page is devoted to stopping the terrorists. Once that has been achieved, it’s time to turn the lights out on the rogue SAS soldier. Then the problem of the three flash drives has to be sorted. Oh yes! I forgot the Russians. Dusted! Game over for the villains! One after the other, each set of villains prepared to wait patiently in line until their time to be demolished
Fans will forgive anything in the face of an exciting story. It is the excitement generated by the quick succession of events that keeps them wanting more. But that level cannot be maintained endlessly. Readers are sharp, astute critics, and if there is a weakness in the story, they will find it. Despite the touch of authorial laziness I referred to, the book is a winner. I read it in the space of a day and earned the ire of a partner who had other, but not necessarily better, ways to spend my time.
Hodder & Stoughton/Hachette Australia