System Failure

toxicJamie Doward’s crime novel takes place in a dimly populated world. His London is full of billionaire sheikhs, powerdressed spies, overbearing Texan bankers but not many ordinary people. In this way it’s like another recent hit, murder mystery The Girl on the Train: reviewing Paula Hawkins’s book, Private Eye‘s anonymous critic noted a ‘curious situational vacuum’ where ‘the figures moving around… are just bundles of psychological urges on collision course’. Maybe the problem is that London’s so expensive these days that only superheroes and supervillains can afford to live there. In the contemporary British novel there is no one left to serve the drinks.

Toxic begins with the body of a banker washing up on a remote beach, head and hands missing. It transpires that the banker was actually drowned someplace else and that there’s more to his death than is immediately apparent. So far, so predictable: the headless and handless corpse recalls The Wire (‘Did he have hands? Did he have a face? Then it wasn’t us’) while the plot device of a victim drowned in a different body of water than where he’s found was done much better by Carl Hiaasen in Strip Tease. The leads are also cut from familiar cloth. DCI Sorrenson is a dyspeptic and stoical cop who’s seen it all: Kate Pendragon an MI5 agent who’s trying to forget her murdered husband by seducing random men in bars.

The real originality is in the plot. Jamie Doward understands finance and how the global wash of money funds terrorism and crime. Significantly, his protagonist Kate Pendragon is a financial analyst, seconded to intelligence to track Islamist petrodollars. The story is tied up with a ‘spook bank’ – an entire investment bank created and run by US intelligence to honeytrap Mexican cartels and Saudi terrorists. Doward has worked as a senior reporter on the Observer for many years, and no doubt has seen many things he couldn’t write about. Staggering revelations of the dirty tricks used by states and spies are tossed off like cocktail party witticisms. (At the same time, Doward’s law enforcement teams are overworked and hammered by post-recession cuts: key evidence is lost because of backlogs and sick leave.) Nor does his story lack for drama. It’s a pounding fairground ride of assassinations, explosions and haggard men staring into the barrels of guns.

And yet the story is somehow underwhelming because of this very lack of a human element at its core. Kate Pendragon reflects that ‘Ultimately, the intelligence community was just like the banking community… They saw only structures and processes. They thought in abstract terms. They didn’t see the human.’ Unfortunately the same could be said of Doward as debut novelist.


5 Responses to “System Failure”

  1. Margot Gordon Says:


  2. Paul Murdoch Says:

    Ha. I’m really glad I read this. A guy I’ve been working with gave me a copy which he found left in Subway cos “you like books don’t you”. I had it in the van and started it when we got rained off last week. Got through maybe 150 pages.

    I thought I was missing the point; that the hollowness was some sort of device which was meant to tell me something about the soullessnesss of modernity or global capitalism or some such…like I haven’t got a pair of fuckin eyes, ears and a dollop of basic humanity. I was genuinely expecting a ‘real’ person to turn up to ground the whole situation but I got sick of waiting. It’s sitting in the glove compartment and will doubtless remain so until I next take the wife to her mothers and perform the requisite clean up when it’ll probably make its way to the charity shop.

    The other thing which kept bugging me was the ‘spook bank’. It reminded me every time of the Human Stain and I was continually waiting for a SJW type to overhear the phrase and dole out some intersectionalist diatribe. And this in turn reminded me that I’ve had a copy of American Pastoral on the shelf unopened since two Christmases past and how much I’d rather be reading Phillip Roth. I can never work up any enthusiasm for Roth but, come what may, soon as I start I’m always instantly hooked.

    There should be a word for that.

    • maxdunbar Says:

      You have got to stop embarrassing me by writing better comments than I can write posts!

      My problem is exactly the same, except you express it so much better – there is loads of good structure but no human element to this book.

      And I can’t even read the word ‘spook’ without thinking of Coleman Silk

      • Paul Murdoch Says:

        Well, it’s nice of you to say so but I thought I was genuinely missing the point with the book. I started American Pastoral last night and I’ve just seen it’s to be a film…with Ewan McGregor. I’m only 100 pages in but, already,I just don’t see that as a brilliant piece of casting. As I’m going along visualing McGregor just isn’t working for me. Maybe it’ll all become clear in the end.

      • maxdunbar Says:

        Ewan McGregor? That’s ridico. Might as well be Martin Clunes

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