Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

It is no secret that Luke Jennings has taken four stories from Kindle and turned them into a novel. But what sort of novel and how successful has he been? Let me answer the second question. He has been an outstanding success.

Jennings has created a secret agent with a history of rigorous training so harsh that anyone without a death sentence over her head would never master. Having survived the preliminaries that Jennings describes in fine detail, Oxana is no more but has risen from the Vorontsova ashes to become Villanelle. She has received her training from a mysterious group of powerful men, one of them being Konstantin, her mentor and taskmaster. We learn that the new agent is a sociopath who is mentally wired to not identify with compassion or enjoyment of the simple things that human beings take for granted. However, she is highly intelligent and, equipped with a faultless memory, is able to mimic common emotions and put them into use. She is, it seems, a superb creature in bed and I wonder who taught her such things. I can see Angelina slavering after the part already.

Without saying too much it is soon clear that the assassin that Luke Jennings created is a very attractive piece of fiction. She has an odd sense of the romantic, she is driven to kill or to have sex (male or female optional), she is unhappy if she is not in control, and she is innately cunning. Her persona grows as the episodes roll out until we witness more than once a highly efficient killing machine.

It’s all baloney, of course, but readers accept that premise and a greatly entertaining book emerges. The attraction of the book is greatly helped by the British woman who leads the search to have Villanelle put down. Eve Polastri becomes known to us in a sort of osmotic way. We know her well by the end of the book, a bit of a coup for Luke Jennings who can develop a character without his readers being aware that he is doing so.

She is everything that her Russian opposite number is not. She is overweight, untidy, and not glamorous in any sense. What she lacks in glamour she makes up for in determination and brilliance in detection. Luke Jennings gives each character a believable background and, by telling us very little about Villanelle’s control, ups the mystery of her ruthless employers.

The story is told in episodic fashion. One of the strengths of Jennings’ presentation is that he involves his character in an assassination and then gets her out of there with no wasted action. What is more, the plots are beautifully conceptualized and put into intelligent action. The use of a double for the assassin is a hoary old chestnut but not in the way this story is told.

What is the story about? It’s pretty unremarkable really – but it is hard to put down, it does draw you out in the night to check out that next chapter, and it does make a great conversation piece at work. Unremarkable, but appealing to our sense of adventure. I can’t wait for the next volume to arrive. (And I do hope that Eve doesn’t catch her out just yet!).

As for Luke Jennings. He is an experienced journalist and author based in London. To quote the blurb he “is the author of Blood Knots, shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson and William Hill prizes, and the Booker Prize-nominated Atlantic.” What the latter has to do with Luke Jennings, I have no idea.

On much firmer ground I am ready to assert that Jennings writes a great book and readers should really check his novels out. Highly recommended for excitement.

Codename Villanelle


By Luke Jennings

John Murray

ISBN: 978-1-473-66639-9

$16.99; 234pp



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