Jamie 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.