Word on the Wire

Month: May, 2015


I’m a sucker for spy thrillers. When ‘Spooks’ was at its zenith I even managed to struggle downstairs with a banging headache, having been laid up for four days with the dreaded Norovirus, just so I wouldn’t miss an episode. This same devotion to the genre explains why, as soon as I saw the trailer for BBC 1’s ‘The Game’, I knew that my Thursdays would be wrapped up for the next six weeks.

Set in the 1970’s, ‘The Game’ is a stylish mega-moody British Cold War drama, starring Brian Cox and Tom Hughes.   Hughes plays Joe Lambe, an MI5 intelligence officer who falls in love with the agent he’s running. Haunted by what happened to her at the hands of a Russian operative, Odin, (who weirdly has an obsession with peeling apples) Lambe finds himself crossing swords with Odin again when Arkady, a Soviet agent, approaches MI5 with details of a top secret plan: ‘Operation Glass’, a direct threat to the UK.

Complexity is the name of the game in espionage. Nothing and nobody is quite what it seems. In time-honoured fashion, there’s plenty of cigarette smoke, stuff about double agents and treachery. Brian Cox is a treat to watch as ‘Daddy’, Lambe’s superior, but it’s Hughes who delivers a mesmerising performance. I first noticed him in ‘Dancing on the Edge’ where he plays Julian, a vulnerable, slightly unhinged and edgy aristocrat.   Nothing too vulnerable here. Despite Joe Lambe’s haunted past, he’s ruthless in his pursuit of the man who killed his lover. You wouldn’t want to meet him down a dark alley.

By definition, spy stories of this era tend to be slower paced with long camera angles, monochrome scenes, nuanced looks and hidden meanings. ‘The Game’ is more le Carre than Jane Featherstone (the creative mind behind the smash hit series, ‘Spooks) and a degree of mental agility is required to keep up with who is doing what. Against this, the MI5 ‘team’ is tight, the cast small. You really feel you know the characters involved and aside from their daily dealings in the murky world of spies and counter-intelligence. Herein lies the seed for what really knocked me out in the last episode.  It wasn’t the revelation about misinformation or the fact an MI6 agent had been set up, it was one tiny little domestic detail: a packet of contraceptive pills discharged from a handbag.

Dare you to watch the series to find out what you’re missing.

‘The Game’ is on BBC1 tonight at 9.00 pm, and you can watch previous episodes on catch-up.



As luck would have it, I was making a cup of tea a few weeks ago, flicked on the radio and tuned in unexpectedly halfway through ‘The Hollow King’, a short dark fantasy tale about the claustrophobic love that binds a Queen to her King. Seconds in, the kettle was switched off, the tea abandoned. I stood, spellbound, just listening and wondering who had written this mesmerising story.   And then the penny dropped. The unique ‘voice’ was so similar to the voice in the book I was reading it had to be John Connolly.

So where can I start with ‘A Song of Shadows’, the thirteenth novel in the private detective Charlie Parker series? No small wonder that a critic from The Times commented that ‘This man is so good, it’s terrifying.’ And terrified I was.

To set the scene, Charlie Parker is in poor shape after almost losing his life, not once, but three times after a shooting. He’s a wreck of a man in every sense, but this does not destroy his ability to detect trouble when it arises. So when a body is found on a beach, apparently a suicide, Parker isn’t convinced. Believing murder has been committed he quickly involves himself in a case that stretches right back to the Second World War. Think Nazis. Think concentration camps. Think atrocities on a grand scale.  And just before you say, ‘well, yawn, this fertile terrain has been excavated many times before’, think again because in Connolly’s hands he crafts something that will hold you from the first line to the last. Beautifully written with a lyrical, elegiac quality to the prose, rich in psychological insight and human complexity, packed with fascinating forensic detail, and with a Hitman that makes me shiver long after he met his (very satisfying) end, this novel is an absolutely ‘must read’ for 2015.

And, if this isn’t enough, there’s something else, which I’ll only whisper to those who are busily crafting their first novel. Connolly breaks every rule you’ll ever learn in a creative writing class. There’s a lot of ‘telling’, but my God, I could listen to this writer’s voice and follow Charlie Parker endlessly, and without a second thought.

Hb jacket‘A Song of Shadows’ by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton


I was rather looking forward to watching Guy Pearce in Australian ‘after the collapse’ movie, ‘The Rover’, a strange tale about a guy whose car is stolen by a bunch of hoodlums on the run. Hell-bent on getting his vehicle back, Eric (Guy Pearce) tracks down one of the gang, Rey, (played by Robert Pattinson) in a bid to find his motor. What the viewer doesn’t know until several scenes into the film is that the ‘bad guys’ have chosen the wrong man on which to to pick: Eric is a cold-blooded killer.

I’ve never watched the Twilight series of films so I had little idea of Pattinson’s acting talent, but, for me, he was definitely the star of the show.   To be fair, it was a peach of a role. There was nothing essentially wrong with Pearce’s portrayal of a murderer bar the fact that the reversal of role from victim to murdering bastard comes as quite a shock. And there was something else. Despite Rey’s valiant attempt to connect with Eric, Eric remains unreachable. Only towards the end, after the bloodletting and in the final frame, do we get a glimpse of his humanity and glean what he cares most about. Was it enough to sustain interest for 98 minutes?

It’s easy to dismiss characters that aren’t that likeable. Publishing editors talk all the time about ‘we need to empathise with and like the main protagonist’. True, but this doesn’t mean that your main man or woman has to be anodyne. I’ve banged on about this a fair amount but it’s worth repeating because the most interesting characters are those who are flawed, more like you and me, and for that simple reason more true to life.

I often to say to writers I work with that a reader doesn’t have to like a character 100% and all of the time, but we do need to care about them. There’s a subtle difference. And let’s face it; a character’s vulnerabilities, conceits, weaknesses, addictions and passions are what prevent him or her from becoming walking clichés. The skilled writer will always home in on a particular foible because it presents a terrific opportunity to reveal true characterisation. For my money, defects provide fertile creative ground and are there to be exploited.