Book Review: Cold by John Sweeney

Another Advance Review Copy, this one received just last month. I was intrigued to hear that the author is THE John Sweeney. The BBC reporter – the same man who got into trouble for filming in North Korea. The same John Sweeney who had a blazing row on camera during an episode of Panorama on Scientology.

A daring reporter who courts controversy, but is he a good writer? What of the book? This is the first in a proposed series it seems. Framed as “A Joe Tiplady Thriller” more is clearly planned centred around this character. Tiplady is flawed. He likes a drink. He has killed people but does not consider himself to be a killer. He is also single-minded in protecting those he loves and seeking out the truth. People are watching Joe Tiplady and he will soon be dragged back into a dark world. It is a complex and brutal story that will take us around the world and back again before it even begins to unravel.

The “likes a drink”… “has killed people but is not a killer” set a small red flag going before I really got started. The drinking, flawed, haunted protagonist is a feature of crime and thrillers. But I went in with an open mind.

I have quite mixed feelings about this book but its faults are not just about this book in particular, buy my personal preferences and the genre. When I was younger, I used to love spy thrillers. I was a big fan of Craig Thomas and took them for what they were – fun, not too complex, nail-biting, edge of the seat thrillers. These books are never that deep but they do their job in being page turners rather effectively.

All that changed with Stieg Larsson. What was once a swift paced thriller became dense, dark, deep and other worse beginning with “d”. Density became the order of these type of book, and I don’t understand why. When I want a page-turning thriller I want it to be pacey. I want to be eager to get to the next page. I don’t want to feel dragged down in mud. I don’t want bloated and over-written text that uses 50 words when just 10 will do. Flow is so important for this genre, and that is the major drawback of this book – it is not an easy read because of the writing style. It improves as the story gets going, and I flew through the middle section towards the end, but those early chapters with the heavy exposition and slow style tainted what was, actually, a very good thriller in its own right.

Sweeney has written this book in this modern dense style (also recently seen in CJ Sansom’s Winter in Madrid) and I really wish he hadn’t. It’s otherwise a good read with all the darkness, torture and murder common to modern thrillers – a no holds barred approach to seedy underworlds of secret political intrigue and the gritty realism that perhaps the likes of Craig Thomas never really had. You just know that most of these brutal and unpleasant characters who litter the book are based on the unsavoury world(s) that Sweeney investigates. That alone makes it worth reading.

There are a few other niggles but nothing major. I did take issue with the presentation of Mormons. It didn’t fit right and I am sure actual Mormons may find this offensive. It is a minor blot on what is otherwise a well-defined world and a 3D look at a very complex plot structure. Yet I come back to the problem that I should have enjoyed this more than I did. This could and should have been a 4-4.5/5 star for me but because I found it a slog in places, it gets busted down to 3.5.

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