Moscow, Midnight by John Simpson

The Blurb On The Back:

MP Patrick Macready has been found dead in his flat. The coroner rules it an accident, a sex game gone wrong.

Jon Swift is from the old stock of journos – cynical, cantankerous and overweight – and something about his friend’s death doesn’t seem right. Then days after Macready’s flat is apparently burgled, Swift discovers that his friend had been researching a string of Russian government figures who had met similarly ‘accidental’ fates.

When the police refuse to investigate, Swift gets in touch with his contacts in Moscow, determined to find out if his hunch is correct. Following the lead, he is soon drawn into a violent underworld, where whispers of conspiracies, assassinations and double agents start blurring the line between friend and foe.

But the truth will come at a price, and it may cost him everything. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

60-something Anglo-Irish TV journalist Jon Swift is an old-school “track down the story and speak truth to power” reporter with an eye (if, no longer, the libido) for the ladies, a cynical attitude and a tendency to quote poetry from memory. He currently works for a news organisation owned by a geriatric, ruthless media magnate (whose name doubtless rhymes with “Frupert Durdoch”) where he feels out of step with the me-too generation of politically correct producers and the spineless management too worried about public relations and whether the boss likes what they’re doing.

When Patrick Macready – a backbench MP known for investigating arms sales and the activities of the Russian government – is found dead, the police think it’s a clear cut case of a kinky sex game gone bad. How else do you explain the fact that he’s found naked on his dining table with an orange filled with amyl nitrate in his mouth and semen on his ceiling? But Swift has been friends with Macready since university and knows that auto-erotic asphyxiation simply wasn’t his style and his suspicions are confirmed when a contact from MI-5 suggests that he should probe the case further.

Assigned to cover the death by his employer, Swift is sure that Macready was onto something serious enough for the Russian government to murder him but persuading his producer Alyssa Roberts (black, working class and highly disapproving of Swift’s old-school attitude), is tricky. Fortunately Swift’s cameraman – a burly, no-nonsense Saffer called Barend “Os” Malan – has worked with Swift for years and trusts his instincts and he’s supported by Macready’s Russian girlfriend, Barbara ‘Vara’ Kuznetsov, who calls on Swift for help when Macready’s flat is apparently burgled, days after his death.

But tangling with the Russian government is fraught with risk and it’s not long before Swift and his crew find out that when a ruthless regime with underworld contacts decides to move against you, no one is safe and all must be viewed with suspicion …

John Simpson’s second novel is an international political thriller with an old-fashioned vibe (despite the topical focus on Russia’s murkier activities). Simpson writes in a conversational style and brings personal insight to bear on Swift’s old-school ways and I liked the insight into a broadcaster’s celebrity but unfortunately the plot and pacing get mushy after the first third and descend into a mess of deus ex machina and foreseeable betrayal.

Swift is definitely an old-school journalist and while his self-confessed old-fashioned attitudes towards women (which, to be fair, he acknowledges), I did like his gruff confidence and cynical attitude. Also good is the way that Simpson shows the affect of age on Swift as he becomes increasingly aware of his own mortality and how that, in turn, has tempered his womanising tendencies and made him hesitate before putting his personal safety at risk. Also good is how Swift accounts for the weird form of celebrity that comes from being a TV journalist as people recognise your face without necessarily knowing your name and how he brings his own 50-years in broadcasting to bear in scenes such as one involving an interview with the Russian president, lending them authenticity. Simpson also gives Swift a conversational writing voice, which I found very engaging – although I have to say I’m not generally a fan of characters who suddenly start spouting poetry because it ties in thematically with a scene (and again, to be fair, Swift calls himself out on this at the beginning of the book so you can’t say that you’re not warned!).

Unfortunately the supporting characters are nowhere near as well developed, which is a big shame as it does foreshadow future events within the book and I have to say that I saw a couple of twists coming far too soon. Os the cameraman was probably my favourite, given that I know a number of Saffers who have the same no-nonsense, can-do attitude (and one of his comments when covering the scene of Macready’s death genuinely made me laugh). A scene where he’s put in danger was particularly well done and horrifying, even if I thought that the ending was somewhat convenient and unbelievable.

The pacing works well in the first third of the book as Simpson sets up events, foreshadows something very bad happening to Swift and then sets him off on his adventure. Unfortunately the second third rapidly goes down hill. This is partly because Simpson decides to have Swift discredited in a particularly horrible (albeit it believable) way and once that happens, it’s difficult to have him claw his way back out of it (indeed, the resolution ends up happening off page and is all very convenient with a swept-under-the-carpet vibe that would simply not be borne out in real life). But it’s also because although there’s a lot of running around and sneaking about and at times, I got the sense that Simpson lost control of events (e.g. there’s a scene where Swift talks about using a tripod he bought at the airport but much play has been made about Swift actually having taken the train to get to his destination) and as a result the pacing actually sags. This is most notable in the scenes where Swift has to hide out on the continent and is dependent on living by his wits, which doesn’t add much to the overall story.

Things don’t improve in the final third where answers conveniently fall out of the sky and authorities move to help ease away problems. There is a lot of fun to be had in a confrontation between Swift and the thinly disguised Australian owner of the news organisation he works for, but the overall effect was a little tired and I couldn’t really suspend my belief enough to buy into it.

Ultimately, this isn’t a bad read – Swift’s chatty voice kept me turning the pages – but the plotting isn’t as pin sharp as I normally want in a political thriller. There is a suggestion of potential for a sequel at the end of the book, but I have to say that I wouldn’t be in a rush to read it.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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