Jeremies in the studio
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Dystopian novels on the whole are not my thing – there’s enough misery in the real world as it is. Nor do I read thrillers very often. But I was recently sent a book that falls into both categories and that I found hard to put down: A State of Fear, which was published earlier this year (320pp. Gibson Square. Paperback, £9.99). The author (whom I know a little) published it under the pseudonym Joseph Clyde and the book came with the cheering message “Enjoy – if you can”.
A State of Fear imagines Britain after the explosion of a dirty bomb at the entrance to the Bank of England in the City – an act of reprisal carried out by an al Qaeda cell (two brothers in this case) for the assassination of Osama bin Laden (a planned simultaneous attack in New York is foiled). In addition to the hundreds killed by the impact (we never find out exactly how many), the wind is blowing radiation dust eastwards across the city, with the result that large-scale evacuations have to be carried out. And then there is the anxiety over the prospect of a second bomb. Indeed, “the Syrian” and his sidekick, a Trinidadian Muslim convert called Jayson, are planning just that, thereby giving the book real tension.
I guess that a thriller stands or falls by its plausibility: recent intelligence failures in Nairobi, before that in Mumbai in 2008, and further back than that . . , mean that this book has a certain grim topicality. The author's message is: this could happen, in London – even after the attacks of July 2005.
Caught up near the incident is Julie, a doctor whose daughter attends a primary school in Aldgate, on the eastern fringes of the City, and who may have been exposed to the fallout in the school playground. Julie already has plenty on her plate: she is seeking a divorce from her husband Martin, a curiously indecisive journalist who becomes scarily and unavoidably embroiled with some revenge-seeking white fascists – “‘Fuckin’ country can be zinging with radioactivity and the Jeremies will be in their studios doin’ in-depth interviews with their Muslim scholars, so-called’”.
Julie and her daughter are relocated to Sheringham, on the north Norfolk coast, where the clifftop campsites fill up with increasingly atomized population groups from London. The real victim of the story – and its most sympathetic character – is undoubtedly the naïve younger sister of the two bombers, Safia, who grows up in a deeply misogynistic household and is horribly duped by her brothers. Her trial on charges of being accessory to mass murder is particularly well done.
Into the mix the author throws criminally inclined Russians and Ukrainians: the bullying Mrs Marusak, who runs a beauty salon in the City . . . and a brothel upstairs, and drinks large Cointreau cocktails; her boyfriend the thuggish Sergei, whose order to the wine waiter goes “Give me two bottle. Of this” (this being Chateau Liversan ’82). And the book is stylishly written, with neat flourishes: “Freeing his arm M. Denizet moved resolutely away, proving once again that French is the perfect language in which to discontinue a conversation”.
The historian Michael Burleigh is quoted on the cover describing the book as “Dark, fast, pitch-perfect”, and again on the back to say that it “has a firm grip on the subterranean currents at work in our society”. The publishers tell us that “Joseph Clyde’s work as a diplomat involved him closely with the intelligence and security services”. In writing this novel he appears to have made judicious use of those connections. What have they made of it I wonder.