Saturday, 10 July 2010

"Payback", James Barrington

Since an idle purchase of "Foxbat" at the Eurotunnel crossing in the autumn of 2007, I've enjoyed James Barrington. It's nonsense, requires a significant suspension of disbelief, but as a fried, leafing through the first pages of "Payback" in The Rake one evening this week commented, for nonsense, it's pretty well written.

Throughout Barrington's work it is possible to discern a steady reigning in of his protagonist, Paul Richter. In "Payback" he's a more straightforward character. He's an individualistic and unorthodox intelligence officer, not necessarily anything unusual in a spy thriller, but now there's no merging in of him being a Royal Navy fighter pilot. This, on balance, is a good thing. Barrington can undeniably write both spy fiction and techno-thrillers, but when the genres were fused quite so firmly it somehow didn't quite work.

"Payback" is thus a tighter story, and has a tight geographic focus on Dubai. Here we can see a clear example of how real world events can undermine an author. The Dubai here is a super-rich Sheikhdom basking in opulence, and it is almost certainly an accurate representation of what it was like while Barrington was writing. Sadly by mid-2010 the financial collapse of Dubai has transformed people's perception, and somehow the idea of the Dubai government blithely paying off terrorists with billions of dollars doesn't ring quite so true. Other little niggles, such as Dubai airport's Terminal 3 being described as "soon to open" when it's been working since 2008 are more easily glossed over, but still illustrate how hard it is for an author to achieve complete veracity.

In truth though, there are some aspects of a thriller such as this where accuracy is needed. Getting the technical details wrong, or just making them up, will jar with the seasoned reader of such material, and Barrington doesn't miss a step here. Other aspects of background, such as the issues with Dubai or the riding roughshod over the finer details of intelligence process can be seen as areas where it's unfair to criticise a work for being unrealistic; the function of a book like "Payback" is not to inform, it is to entertain. The end product is a highly readable and enjoyable book. As with everything else Barrington has written, it's not great literature, but doesn't seek to be. It's summer, people will be flocking through airports, "Payback" is the sort of book to readily keep you distracted while cooped up on a long haul flight.
 
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