J. E. Hall
Ottery Books £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20
J. E. HALL has written a novel for our time. Set in Iraq, London, Tel Aviv and elsewhere, it is a suspense novel that draws on many of the concerns of today.
The main characters are mostly young: a jihadist who joined Islamic State (IS) after witnessing his father’s death; a young English man on a solo cycle ride to Iran in his gap year; a woman and her brother — one languishing, the other with ambition — in Edmonton in north London.
The older generation plays its part, mostly as avuncular overseers of the next generation. One is a hard-pressed vicar whose drop-in centre for refugees tests a number of relationships inside and outside church circles. Some, however, tend towards cliché, especially a narcissistic Prime Minister who overrides advice from political and security personnel, and the vile Abu, a drug-running Islamist who seems untouched, physically and emotionally, by a gangland arson attack that kills his wife and children.
The action follows the lives of the protagonists whose paths cross in various locales. Identities are swapped as part of an IS plan to stage an action during the PM’s vainglorious public display that somehow is allowed to coincide with Remembrance Day commemorations.
It is an action book, but some of the coincidences stretch the reader too far. Church people are, by and large, astonishingly naïve, even to the point of harbouring a suspected terrorist. The police and security services are inept and bumbling, allowing their man to escape on a number of occasions. A bike is left unlocked in central London, and is still there when a character wants to make good his escape hours later.
Much of the book is finely detailed. Hall, a priest and former probation officer, knows Edmonton and its people well. This eye for detail is slightly skewed when Ali, the IS man planning his jihad, seems to be in The Sanctuary by Westminster Abbey rather than, as stated, Church House.
Some elements grate: despite clearly being in the British capital, we are routinely told that transport is provided by red London buses; and one chapter bewilderingly drops into “hood argot”, though the characters drop it as quickly as it arises.
For all that, it is a good read. The plot at times veers away from believability, and the climax feels rushed, but this does not really get in the way of an entertaining novel. It is the first of a projected trilogy involving many of the characters in different settings.
The Revd Kevin Scully is Rector of St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green, in London.