About the Book
Gary Nelson has a routine for the commute to his rather dull job in the city. Each day, he watches as a woman on the train applies her make up in a ritual he now knows by heart. He’s never dared to strike up a conversation…but maybe one day.
Then one evening, on the late train to Gipsy Hill, the woman invites him to take the empty seat beside her. Fiddling with her mascara, she holds up her mirror and Gary reads the words ‘HELP ME’ scrawled in sticky black letters on the glass.
From that moment, Gary’s life is turned on its head. He finds himself on the run from the Russian mafia, the FSB and even the Metropolitan Police – all because of what this mysterious young woman may have witnessed. In the race to find out the truth, Gary discovers that there is a lot more to her than meets the eye . . .
Format: eARC (352 pages) Publisher: Wildfire Books
Publication date: 2nd September 2021 Genre: Thriller
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I’m a great fan of Alan Johnson, both as a former politician and as an author of a fabulous series of memoirs – This Boy, Please, Mr Postman, and The Long and Winding Road. For those who don’t know or haven’t guessed from the titles, he’s a lifelong fan of The Beatles. When I heard him speak at Henley Literary Festival in 2018 about his then recently published book, In My Life: A Music Memoir, he mentioned that his next book was likely to be fiction, probably historical fiction. He obviously decided to switch genre because The Late Train to Gipsy Hill fulfils all the requirements of a crime thriller with its intricate plot, cast of shady characters and frequent action scenes.
The storyline couldn’t be more up-to-date either, set in a London in which football clubs are owned by rich Russians while their fellow countrymen use the buying and selling of property as a way of laundering dirty money. As the author notes, ‘Amongst the Russian criminal fraternity, London had become known as the world’s laundromat, washing billions of pounds of dirty cash every year‘.
Through a chivalrous act of kindness towards a damsel in distress, poor Gary, the book’s hero, finds himself plunged into a world in which Russian secret service agents, with or without the knowledge of the Russian President, may be carrying out killings in a particularly dangerous way (echoes of the real life murder of Alexander Litvinenko). At the same time, rival gangs of criminals engaged in prostitution, drug and people smuggling, fight for precedence.
If, like Gary, you’re in danger of becoming confused by the twists and turns of the plot – of which there are many – as well as the many Russian characters with difficult to pronounce names, the author thoughtfully provides periodic recaps of the events that have taken place. However, also like Gary, you’ll have to wait until the very end to get the whole picture.
The book contains convincing detail about the structure and operations of the intelligence services and the Metropolitan Police no doubt gleaned from the author’s time as Home Secretary. I just hope that some of what Gary discovers doesn’t hold true in real life. There’s also an impressive knowledge of the London Underground and bus network on display, and even a fleeting role for a vehicle linked to one of the author’s former occupations.
At the Henley Literary Festival event I mentioned earlier, Alan said one of the reasons he wanted to turn to fiction was because he relished the idea of being able to control plot and characters, something not possible in non-fiction. In The Late Train to Gipsy Hill he has certainly demonstrated the ability to craft an intricate plot. During his talk, Alan also paid tribute to the English teacher who first encouraged him to write so it was lovely to see the dedication to, I assume, the same teacher at the beginning of the book.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Late Train to Gipsy Hill and thought it was an impressive debut. Alan is just one of the fantastic selection of authors appearing at this year’s Henley Literary Festival. His event, like many others, will also be live-streamed so if you can’t get there in person you can still listen to Alan talk about the book. At the time of writing, tickets are still available and can be booked via the Henley Literary Festival website.
In three words: Ingenious, convincing, assured
Try something similar: Killing State by Judith O’Reilly
About the Author
Alan Johnson’s childhood memoir This Boy was published in 2013. It won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, and the Orwell Prize, Britain’s top political writing award. His second volume of memoirs, Please, Mr Postman (2014) won the National Book Club award for Best Biography. The final book in his memoir trilogy, The Long And Winding Road (2016), won the Parliamentary Book Award for Best Memoir.
Alan was a Labour MP for 20 years before retiring ahead of the 2017 general election. He served in five cabinet positions in the Governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown including Education Secretary, Health Secretary and Home Secretary. He and his wife Carolyn live in East Yorkshire. (Photo/bio credit: Publisher author page)