Damien Lewis has reported from a number of dangerous war related locations, and no doubt has a plethora of stories to tell. Here, he gives us a fictional account of a special mission that needs to be done covertly and off the record. It has elements of other busy and involving military based tales, and this is all put into just under 100 pages, in this short story written as part of the Quick Reads series.
When former SAS officer Mick is recruited, along with his team, to infiltrate and Iraqi base and retrieve a painting, Mick starts to guess something is up. When old acquaintance Bill, an American who knows the Iraqi bases like the back of his hand, comes along for the ride, they start to wonder the truth behind the mission. Lewis manages to create quite a twisting tale. Truth be told, it does take a while to get into it, but once the basics of the characters and the mission have been explained, the action starts, and the pace quickens, improving the story greatly.
The first 30 or 40 pages or so are spent going over a lot of the preliminaries of the mission. I did feel that this could have been shortened, although what we gain from this is a better understanding of the characters involved, in particular Mick and his old squad. Once the action does start, it's generally well described, yet concise, allowing the action to flow very nicely. Lewis does make a point of including quite a lot of small detail, but the story itself covers a relatively short space of time and events, so you do need a bit of explanation, not just to give us a clue as to what is going on, but also to prevent it being like a flash in the pan 50 pages where a lot happens but we don't actually get time to savour the story.
I thought the best thing about the book was the character development. There is a tendency, among military fiction writers, to establish the characters above all else, and I think this is rather necessary in many ways, as the subject material often hinges on the ability for the characters to interact well, and this is no exception. Each character has his place within Mick's tight squad, and Bill is done very well. In amongst them all, there are strong hints of sabotage and double crossing, and what Lewis does very well is make sure that it is covert and suspicious from the start. This makes you wonder if anyone is telling the truth, throughout, and gives you the impression that not only could there be a traitor, but that it could be anyone.
The ending comes as no great surprise, but the lack of certainty definitely made it a more curious read, and gave me something more to think about. Without this, I think I would have been extremely disappointed in the story, but with it, it was quite good in many ways. Yes, it dragged for the first half, but this did result in a pretty impressive second half. There are better Quick Reads out there, for sure, but this one is still a decent one, and worth a read. It's available for £2.99.