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

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Tracks of Betrayal: An Alex Swan Mystery Review

Matthew Kresal tracks the fabled Red Lion.
For a period from the 1950s into the 1970s, British writers dominated the world of thrillers. Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, Ted Allbeury, Frederick Forsyth, and James Follett all left their mark on the genre, defining it in many ways before the likes of Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy took over. Recently, and especially since the release of Mike Ripley's superb overview of the era in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, new writers have been taking readers back to those days. One of those is David Holman with his Alex Swan mystery-thrillers, following the exploits of the troubleshooter as he tackles a number of Cold War-era foes. In Tracks of Betrayal, Swan finds enemies close to home.

Set a year after Spears of Defiance, this fifth novel moves events into the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher is still freshly minted in Number 10, Anthony Blunt's role in the Cambridge Five spy ring is still in the headlines, the Soviets are in Afghanistan, and (in a reference that made this reader chuckle) Tom Baker's Doctor still occupies the TARDIS. Into that, a live-fire test of the new DEERSTALKER targeting system goes awry, leading to its theft, and to Swan and his team investigating. But while tangling with the Mossad, Swan is also on the hunt for the fabled but so far never caught traitor known only as the Red Lion. The trail will take Swan across Britain, from Bath to a relic from the Second World War and into a cat and mouse game that could change the Cold War balance.

As that may suggest, Holman wears his influences on his sleeves to an extent. There's plenty of echoes of the era of Cold War spy thrillers that the Swan novels pastiche, with some deliberate shoutouts to the works of Frederick Forsyth and the late John le Carre as the plot unfolds. But he comes at them with a 21st-century eye, hindsight making it easier perhaps to figure out how to fit characters and events into the larger context of the era. It also reveals Holman's knowledge of the genre and his audience's expectations, something that he occasionally uses as red herrings for the reader.
The novel also benefits from Holman writing some cracking scenes. From the explosive opening on a MOD firing range to its climactic action sequence at a wartime relic, Tracks of Betrayal features moments that feel tailor-made for the cinema screen. Between such moments, as Swan and his team go about their investigations, Holman also writes equally solid segments of detective work and spy tradecraft, including interrogations and brush passes that allow characters and readers alike to put things together. It's something that those past masters did at their best and which Holman follows neatly in their footsteps.

As someone who is still (to my shame) a relative newcomer for the series, Holman also doesn't take his readers for granted. Tracks of Betrayal is new-to-Swan friendly, bringing 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 narrative, reminding readers that there's a world beyond the events of this particular adventure. It also makes this a solid jumping-on point, perhaps even to seek out those initial works.

It all helps to make Tracks of Betrayal an engaging read for fans of the thriller genre. One which pays tribute to its past masters while also carving a path for itself decades on, letting it take a best of both worlds approach to its storytelling. And with a mix of espionage, action, and history, Holman takes his readers along for a fantastic ride.

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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