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Istanbul by J. E. Hall

20 October 2017

Kevin Scully enjoys a gripping thriller set in a murky world

READING J. E. Hall’s second novel about extremism a week after Khalid Masood’s attack at Westmin­ster was a reminder of the some­times uncomfortably thin mem­brane between fiction and fact.

Hall’s Flashbacks (Books, 18 November 2016) culminated in an attack on Remembrance Day, result­ing in the death of the Prime Min­ister. In many ways, people in this second book experience the title of the first. Indeed, the narrative makes specific use of the term for a number of rightly traumatised younger characters.

For all that, Kaylah Kone, now mother to the child of a terrorist, Ali Muhammed, and Adam Taylor seem to have learned little in allow­ing themselves to become putty in the hands of friends and security forces. Machinations mean that all three are in Istanbul for this thriller.

Adam, a reluctant hero, goes on a study tour to Turkey as part of his university studies; Kaylah is lured first into free accommodation in London, and then, with her brother, on an expenses-free holiday; Ali heads up IS-planned assaults on targets, while their suspicious Kurd­ish collaborators vow to undertake other attacks.

It is filmic in style: lots of crowded rooms with intelligence agents in London and Tel Aviv telling each other — seemingly for the reader’s benefit — information that ranges from the surprising to the bleeding obvious. All the while they are pulling the strings of the hapless young people. A mys­ter­i­ous end-of-phone agent absolv­es Kaylah’s brother from a life of crime in puzzling circum­stances.

Spectacular tactics are used to counter the threat. An attack is foiled at an international football friendly by a bovver boy, a man whose political leanings are to be the basis of Hall’s third book, and his mates from the West Country.

There are some early errors in names of places in London, notably “Alexander” Park; some uncon­vincing discussions between people who would have been involved in the investigation of the Westminster débâcle; clichés to express emotion; and occasionally an erratic use of commas.

As in Flashbacks, there is much detail in both geography and ideas — after all, Adam and his mates are on a study trip; so the reader learns about different strains of Islam.

The spooks are both chatty — so much information gets shared openly that security seems to be a sieve — and inept: an assassina­tion attempt even has agents using a traceable diplomatic vehicle. There is a real weakness in credibility when a UK operative mounts a raid on an inexplicably unguarded house to recover a snatched baby.

But this is fiction, not a study in realpolitik. Once again, Hall sets out to tell a story that carries the reader along in exciting events. In that, he succeeds, in what is a good read set in a dark world.


The Revd Kevin Scully is the Rector of St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green, in London.



J. E. Hall

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