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FROM Reagan-loving Republican Tom Clancy to the Conservative Frederick Forsyth and Jonathan Freedland’s rose-tinted views of Democratic presidents, political thrillers are often underpinned by some unpleasant, power-friendly politics.
Which makes Steve Howell’s Collateral Damage a welcome addition to the genre.
The book’s politics are perhaps unsurprising when you consider the author’s position as deputy director of strategy and communications in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership team during the 2017 general election.
More pertinent is Howell’s activism in the late 1980s — along with being secretary of UK Local Authorities Against Apartheid, in 1987 he attended a conference in Tripoli, Libya, to mark the first anniversary of the US air strikes on the country.
With the US warplanes taking off from UK bases — the first US combat operation launched from this country since the second world war — Howell believes that the attacks mark the beginning of the era of regime-change wars.
Accordingly, his novel begins with the death of British peace activist and journalist Tom Carver while attending a conference in Tripoli in 1987. Suspecting foul play, Carver’s partner Ayesha, a Palestinian exile, works with young London School of Economics lecturer Hannah and lawyer Jed to uncover the truth.
Fast-paced and carefully plotted, it’s a short and punchy read, which I devoured in a couple of sittings. While Clancy and Freedland fantasise about grand presidential politics in Washington DC, Howell’s canvas is much more modest. The action does shift to Libya at one point but most of the events occur in and around London.
He provides some authentic period detail, including passing mentions of Edward Said’s Orientalism, Spycatcher and the unsolved murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan. Of course, there were no mobile phones in the late 1980s, with the characters making copious use of phone boxes on the street.
And while the novel’s central twist is very much of its time, unfortunately it continues to have painful relevance today. Echoing films from the period like 1986’s Defence of the Realm and Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda from 1990, there is a foreboding sense of the British secret state working to protect the powerful in the name of “national security.”
With former head of MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove branding Corbyn a “present danger to our country” just before the December 2019 general election, the struggle between the general public and established power continues, it seems.
Published by Quaero, £8.99.
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