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Fiction Review The Levels by Helen Pendry

Structural and political violence of the arms industry unmasked in gripping crime fiction

THE MID WALES town of Pont Rhith, surrounded by mountains, fields and forests, may appear an ideal destination for holidaymakers.

But its beauty is deceptive. Lying as it does beneath a military training flight path, the town and the valley are plagued with low-flying jets and, more recently, military drones. When one of the drones crashes into a holiday park, killing a local woman, everyone views it as a tragic accident.

Everyone, that is, except Abby Hughes. A residential social worker in a London hostel for the homeless, she suspects that one of the hostel’s former residents, Tegid Rhys, is responsible. Tegid, a devoted pacifist, is an eccentric dreamer and maker of maps that are “a scribbled mess of drawings.”

She fears that his obsessive hatred of militarism may have driven him to an act of sabotage that caused the accidental death of an innocent woman. Part noirish crime story, part literary fiction, The Levels finds Abby in Pont Rhith, where she has gone to search for Tegid.

Debut novelist and mid Wales resident Helen Pendry paints a complex, gradated picture of her adopted homeland. Pont Rhith is no Hinterland — there are no serial killers lurking beneath woodpiles in neglected outbuildings. Instead, the violence is structural and political.

The MT4S Consortium, a meaningless name that hides its murderous business, has powers to fly overhead at will. The consortium, as Abby soon discovers, is a shadowy private company under contract to the Ministry of Defence to develop airborne weapons.

During one of its smoothly handled “consultation” evenings with the local community, a slick PR man explains that the weapons that MT4S are testing would only be used to defend our freedom. What the carefully prepared presentation does not mention is that their military planes and drones are sold to Israel, Syria and Saudi Arabia, or wherever the next lucrative contract may come from.

He does not say — as Abby discovers in Tegid’s collection of newspaper cuttings — that their jets have been deployed to bomb civilians in Afghanistan, Gaza, Beirut and their drones on strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.

Their glossy brochures do not include photographs of “women scraping their families off the walls of their front rooms and soldiers shovelling kids into bin bags in the ruins of a school.”

The Levels, with all the tension and plot twists and turns that you would expect from a gripping crime novel, makes an unsettling, compelling read. But it is the portrait of a globalised arms industry — with its bland, corporatised brand of mass murder — that really terrifies.

Published by Parthian, £8.99.

 

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