Spears of Defiance: An Alex Swan Mystery Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Spears of Defiance: An Alex Swan Mystery Review

Matthew Kresal crosses continents and cultures with Alex Swan.

Mike Ripley, in his book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, wrote about the heyday of the British thriller from the 1950s through to the mid-late 1970s; from Ian Fleming's Casino Royale to Jack Higgins' The Eagle Has Landed, in effect. In recent years, a number of authors have been taking readers back to those days, evoking the era in new works. One of those is David Holman with his Alex Swan mystery-thrillers, to which this reviewer is a latecomer. The latest Swan tale, Spears of Defiance, was released last month and is a most excellent read.

Set in 1979, Spears of Defiance occurs amidst tumultuous times. Alex Swan, now pushing sixty and with fellow Ministry of Defence troubleshooter Andrew Gable at his side, is facing the potential closing down of his department. While working to justify the department's future, two seemingly unconnected events draw his and Gable's attention: the mysterious death of a scientist who worked at Porton Down and a letter from a recently deceased friend indicating a cover-up of the hijacking of an RAF Buccaneer. Following both strands, Swan follows a trail that involves events in Rhodesia, soon to be Zimbabwe, negotiations at Lancaster House to bring about a war in that country, missiles stolen from the South African Air Force, a Libyan arms dealer, and a mercenary who runs a gambit between members of the IRA and a Rhodesiaian shipping magnate.

As that plot summary might suggest, this is a novel very much in the mold of the mystery and thriller genres. Indeed, both the novel and its protagonist fit a description given to Swan partway through the story of being like a cross between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. There's plenty of mystery elements and threads, with the death of a government scientist involving a train making this reader think of the Holmes tale The Bruce-Partington Plans. The African portions of the narrative are where the thriller elements in particular kick into high gear, offering up a narrative that wouldn't have been out of place for thrillers of the era or a non-007 film outing for the late Sir Roger Moore (something one of the characters alludes to). As such allusions suggest, Holman is aware of the history of the genre, and in crafting a tale that follows in their tradition, something in which he is immensely successful in doing, even if there are moments of occasionally stilted dialogue along the way. His attention to historical detail shines throughout as well, anchoring the events firmly in time and space, adding to the effectiveness of the piece.

Thankfully for this newcomer to the Swan series, Holman doesn't make the mistake of taking his readers for granted. Spears of Defiance gently brings latecomers to the series up to date when past events get referenced. Importantly, Holman does it without coming across as patronizing or going on too long. Instead, it adds to the book, reminding readers that there's a world beyond the events of this particular adventure. It's something which also makes this a nice jumping on point, perhaps even to seek out those initial works.

For readers seeking out a new thriller read, Spears of Defiance comes recommended wholeheartedly. Holman has crafted a tale in the finest tradition of British thriller writers of old, offering a compelling mix of mystery, espionage, action, and history. And though Mr. Swan might be pushing sixty in this latest outing, this reader is hoping there will be plenty of adventures for him in future.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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