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Before and during WW2 the Germans painted the British as master spies always around to stir up trouble in foreign countries. To this day we Brits have a proud tradition of having some of the best secret agents in the world, most of them not as interesting as James Bond. The reality is that many secret agents are kind of like glorified civil servants and rather than heading head first into danger themselves they instead construct a network of informants. Turning someone loyal against their own kind is not always a pretty thing; you may have to blackmail them with threats to their family or tell them you will turn them in. Surely a book about the complicated relationship between an informant and a secret agent must transcend this boring civil servant feel and instead be an exciting and gripping book?
David Ryan is a rising star in the British intelligence agencies during the mid 90s when the IRA is starting to look towards a peaceful resolution to tensions. Even with Gerry Adams looking towards a middle solution other extremists would rather join a group like the Provisional IRA and carry on their tactics of terror. Colette McVeigh has close links to one of these new groups as her brothers are high up in their command. When she is caught by the police Ryan threatens to take her children away unless she becomes his new informant called Shadow Dancer. With something going down Shadow Dancer soon become a vital source of information for the British. Can Colette keep the Brits informed whilst protecting her family and can Ryan remain dispassionate enough to allow Colette to run such risks?
Shadow Dancer has got great potential to be a compelling spy thriller. It reads like Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy and for me this is the reason that it fails. Slow building novels like this may have been interesting in the 60s and 70s but as a more modern reader my tastes require something a little faster. The book in a long one and it makes you feel all the length as it plods along. Coupled to this is very little actually happened until the very end. The writers tactic of having a dull book with an exciting finale no longer works on me as I have learned to take the book as a whole.
The issue with the book is down to Bradbys writing style and his obsession with characters internal monologues. For the first 100 pages or so you do not mind the slow build as we get to know the characters really well. Colette in particular is a well rounded character as she is forced in to the impossible position of playing her brothers off against her children. It is easy to sympathise with her and she should have been the only focus the book had. This is not the case as Ryan also has his fair share of the text. Ryan is not very likable as he is an ambitious Brit out to further his career. Bradby tries to spend the rest of the book softening him up by making the two leads closer; I dont think this works as her peril is his fault in the first place.
As mentioned before its not the characters themselves that are to blame for the books faults but the use of internal narratives and monologues. Large chunks of the book concentrate on how each character is feeling abut the current position they are in. We become far to involved in the mechanics of what makes the characters tic that nothing actually happens. I imagine that Bradby believed that if he could portray the tension and fatigue that his characters felt he would heighten the sense of anguish in the book. This might be true for some people, but to me it was just plain overly descriptive and dry.
With Shadow Dancer herself being such an interesting character is a shame that the story she inhabits could not be a lot better. Bradby never mentions what year it is but we are to assume it is near the 90s as peace is coming. This lack of date is typical of the flimflam that makes up parts of this book. Bradby would have been better served concentrating on the narrative rather than trying to develop every character far beyond what was truly needed. Bradby needs to learn to balance action and emotion if his books are going to be interesting reads.
Author: Tom Bradby
Price: amazon uk - £4.79
play.com - £4.99
2 out of 5