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Dobbs, Michael - 'Old Enemies'
Hardback: 432 pages (Feb. 2011) Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd ISBN: 1847372888

Politics is the beast that Michael Dobbs knows best. Well enough to parody, wryly and wisely, in his House of Cards trilogy.

OLD ENEMIES was my first experience of his hero, Harry Jones, "a buccaneering politician and former soldier". I'm not sure exactly how buccaneering a politician can be, even when he's flirting with the role of Home Secretary, but Dobbs is quick to steer the action away from Downing Street and into more promising avenues for intrigue and action.

An old flame of Harry's re-enters his life when her son is kidnapped as part of a plot to stop publication of Nelson Mandela's diaries. Can our hero resist the temptation to fall for this old flame all over again? If he does, he'll incur the wrath of her husband and father-in-law, not to mention upsetting the British Prime Minister and unsettling his own demons.

It is Dobbs' great skill that he can weave history, politics and morals into an easy and almost breezy read, plot twists laid like trip-wires at precise intervals. Just as we think the dilemma is resolved, he lobs a ruddy great grenade into the mix. Harry Jones is no James Bond; his victories are hard-won, and vastly outnumbered by his failures. In consequence, he's a credible, likeable hero. What's less credible is how he made it this far as a politician, given his taste for the truth and an unfortunate habit of attracting catastrophes.

Dobbs serves up deft, evocative descriptions of international locations, from Christmas in London to Trieste via Switzerland and Zimbabwe. And a great cast of characters, including pompous, fearful politicians, a suave American presidential advisor and (best of all, for my money) a wily old Irishman with a fine line in banter and bitterness.

The latter is Harry's old enemy, Sean Breslin. Sean's a dangerous man to mess with, as Harry learns to his cost early on, before eventually coming to rely on the man's fiendish resourcefulness. The story gets into its stride when the pair of old enemies team up to rescue the kidnapped boy. Every scene between Harry and Sean bristles with purpose, and the added zing of grievance and regret. It was never going to end well for both men, but I was sorry each time that Dobbs separated them during the last part of the book; we learned so much about Harry's motives and character from his interaction with his old enemy.

Overall, this is a masterful example of how to write a whip-tight thriller. The pace lags only on a handful of occasions, when Harry's soul-searching became a little rich for my taste. But it's to Dobbs' credit that he didn't saddle his hero (and readers) with the traditional baggage associated with this brand of hero: alcohol, an estranged partner and to-be-regretted-next-morning sexual encounters. Yes, there's a flavour of the latter here. But so coyly written it could be a manifesto for meaningful relationships; there'll be no 'Bad Sex Award' for Dobbs this year. Instead, OLD ENEMIES might just earn him another high-ranking slot in the bestseller stakes.

Read another review of OLD ENEMIES.

Sarah Hilary, England
April 2011

Sarah blogs at Crawl Space.

Sarah Hilary is the Bristol-based winner of the Sense Creative Writing Award 2010 and the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize 2008. She is currently working on a crime novel. Her agent is Jane Gregory

More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 20/11/2011 14:00