Monday, 30 March 2009

“Pandemic”, James Barrington

I've approached James Barrington with his series of Paul Richter techno thrillers backwards. Two Septembers ago his “Foxbat” (the third in the series) provided me with the second half of a 2 for 20 quid deal on 'airport exclusives' at the Dover Eurotunnel terminal as I was casting around for something to go with Ian Rankin's “Exit Music”. “Foxbat” cheerfully served its point as fodder for evenings in what was my last week of living in Belgium. It romped along cheerfully providing a happy degree of excitement even if its core plot was highly implausible I distinctly recall finishing it with a bit of a chuckle, concluding it hadn't been all that bad, and happily passing it along to a colleague as part of my effort to lighten my bag for my return to blighty.

“Pandemic”, the second Richter book posits a fairly typical scenario featuring a long lost biological weapon recovered from the submerged wreckage of an aircraft (shades of Cussler's “Vixen 03”) and the spiralling consequences of this as elements within the US intelligence community attempt to cover the affair up while British man-of-action Paul Richter attempts to uncover the truth. Crete provides a pleasingly different backdrop for the majority of the book. Barrington weaves the disparate plot lines together in a way that succeeds in keeping attention, even if not really approaching the level of 'unputdownability' that true suspense fiction achieves.

Throughout the book there is an immense level of technical detail included. I've gone through phases in my reading life when this is enormously appreciated, feeling that it adds authenticity, but there is the countervailing argument that holds that a lot of it is just padding and doesn't add a huge amount to the core plot. While in this instance the level of diversion into the finer points of military technology or epidemiology didn't bother too much, there were the occasional instances where there was the sneaking suspicion that a slightly sharper editor might have been able to trim a little bloat from the book.

The central character provides a number of credibility challenges. The combination of fighter pilot and spy doesn't sit as easily as perhaps it should, and the level to which he is imbued with a level of cold blooded ruthlessness somehow doesn't help make him especially real. Indeed, throughout “Pandemic” there is a distinct lack of rounded characters the reader can readily identify with. The effect of this is that while this is undeniably a violent book, the acts of violence do not carry the real arresting impact that stops the reader and makes them think. This, if you like, is comic book violence rather than gritty “Nil by Mouth” sort of territory. Taking this approach does not have to be a bad thing – it certainly makes for an easier read, but lessens the extent to which it's a memorable read.

James Barrington isn't quite an author who makes you almost feel guilty for enjoying his books, but by the same token it's neither high literature nor a classic example of the perfectly legitimate spy thriller genre. I'm pleased to have read both of his books that I've so far encountered, and it's probably a safe bet that the rest of his portfolio will over time find its way into my hands. It's an ideal banker for a trip away or a lazy afternoon at home, but I suspect he'll struggle in my mind to transition from being the second half of a 2 for 20 offer to the prime driver.

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