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wot I red on my hols by alan robson(sassafras sassafrorum)

Do Angry Vaccinators Get The Needle?

Between them, Chris Ryan, Andy McNab and Stephen Leather have pretty much monopolised the SAS action adventure genre. It makes sense for Ryan and McNab to write these kind of books. They were both in the SAS and they saw more than their fair share of real life action – both of them were members of Bravo Two Zero, an SAS patrol that somehow managed to get itself lost and marooned in Iraq. Each of them wrote supposedly true accounts of what happened to that patrol but since the two accounts contradict each other on almost every major point, I think that each can safely be assumed to be just as fictional as all the other books in Ryan and McNab’s bibliographies.

As far as I know, Stephen Leather has never served in the military, so his reasons for writing these kind of novels remain obscure. But what he lacks in experience he more than makes up for with the depth of his research and the cleverness of his plots and characterisation. I find his books quite compelling and I simply can’t put them down. I’ve read and mildly enjoyed several of Chris Ryan’s novels but although I’ve started several of Andy McNab’s I’ve never managed to finish a single one of them. His plots are predictable and implausibly dramatic. To call his characters cardboard would be an insult to the paper manufacturing industry. Amusingly, I suspect that Stephen Leather shares my prejudices – in several of his novels, characters make sneering remarks about Andy McNab’s writing skills…

There’s no doubt about it, Stephen Leather stands head and shoulders above the competition and while the pond might be a very small one, he is certainly the biggest fish swimming in it. I’ve binge read (or, more accurately, binge re-read) eight of his books this month. I haven’t read a single word by anybody else so the discussion in this article is going to be rather narrowly focussed. Sorry about that…

I started the month with a massive hay fever attack that left me weak and trembling. Every brain cell in my skull turned to custard and flowed out of my nose in a steady stream. Reading something new that might actually require me to think was completely out of the question until I took the time to completely re-grow my brain. The only thing I felt able to do was to read something old and familiar. So  I picked up Hard Landing, the first of Stephen Leather’s Dan "Spider" Shepherd novels and in between massive sneezes, I started to lose myself in the story. I was a couple of chapters into it when I realised that it was time to take Jake the Dog for his morning walk. And that’s when my troubles really started.

"I’m not going for a walk with you," said Jake firmly. "You’ve already used a whole box of tissues and it isn’t even breakfast time yet."

"I’ve only used half a box," I protested. "The half that was left over from yesterday."

"Half a box, a whole box. Whatever! It’s still a lot of tissues. We can’t go walking together. People will edge away from you as soon as they see you snuffling, sneezing and blowing your nose. They’ll be scared you might give them covid and so they won’t get close enough to us to pat me and rub my tummy. That means that it will be a very boring walk as far as I’m concerned."

"I haven’t got covid," I insisted. "It’s just a hay fever attack."

"How can you be so sure of that?" asked Jake. "It’s the wrong time of year for hay fever. So maybe you have got covid after all and you just don’t know it yet."

"I get hay fever at random intervals all year round," I said. "If it makes you feel any better, just call it an allergy attack instead. Apart from a leaky nose, I don’t have any other symptoms. There’s no fever and no sore throat. My nose isn’t even blocked! I can breathe through it quite normally in the odd few minutes when there isn’t an amazonian river of snot pouring out of it." I sneezed loudly. "And there’s this irritating tickle in my sinuses that is far too far back for me to reach in and scratch. It won’t go away and it keeps making me sneeze."

"Why don’t you go and get a covid test?" suggested Jake. "Maybe the thing they shove up your nostrils will reach far enough back into your sinuses to scratch that itch and make it go away. If it does, you’ll be miraculously cured!"

"No," I said. "By the time I argue my way into an appointment my allergy attack will have gone away. I’ll just take an anti-histamine tablet and squirt a steroid spray up each nostril. I’ll be back to normal by this time tomorrow."

Jake wrinkled his nose. "I hate it when you use that nasal spray," he said. "It makes you smell like a chemical factory."

"Put up with it," I said, and returned to my book.

Jake brought me a stuffed llama to make me feel better and curled himself up at my feet. I cuddled the llama. Even though it was rather slimy, it was undeniably comforting.  I sneezed and debated wiping my nose with the llama. I was sure Jake wouldn’t notice and even if he did, he might enjoy the new taste sensation. In the end I decided against it and just wiped my nose with the last tissue in the box. I went and got another box, making a mental note to buy some more next time I went shopping. I only had six boxes left. That wasn’t nearly enough – during one never to be forgotten hay fever attack a few years ago, I literally used up six large boxes of tissues in a single day. I live in dread of that ever happening again.

By the time I had finished re-reading Hard Landing I was starting to feel a lot better. Unfortunately I now had an overwhelming urge to read nothing but Stephen Leather novels in general and his novels about Dan Shepherd in particular. For me, reading a Stephen Leather novel is the literary equivalent of eating peanuts. You can’t stop at just one… So I picked up Soft Target, the second book in the series. Lather, rinse and repeat for the rest of the month. Only the titles changed.

Stephen Leather has written seventeen novels and half a dozen collections of short stories and novellas about Dan Shepherd, an ex-SAS soldier. An eighteenth novel is due for publication any day now and I am eagerly waiting to add it to my collection. Shepherd has the nickname Spider. In several of the novels he is asked where his nickname came from. This always leads to a little bit of dialogue that goes something like this (I paraphrase slightly, but not very much…):

"I ate a tarantula once," explained Shepherd.
"What? Why did you do that?"
"We were in a tropical jungle doing survival training," said Shepherd. "We
were bored and so we had a competition to see who could eat the most disgusting thing.
I ate a tarantula."
"Was it worth it, just to win a silly competition?"
"I didn’t win," said Shepherd. "I came second."
"What on earth did the winner eat?"
"Trust me," said Shepherd, "you really don’t want to know."

This lightness of touch is often used to ease the tension. The novels are full of bits of business like this that serve no plot purpose. They are simply there for character development and verisimilitude and they do their job very effectively. Shepherd is a fully realised character. Unlike so many he-man heroes he is not mono-maniacally attached to his career. He has a life outside of work and he does his best to spend as much time as he possibly can with his son, just doing family things. This is particularly important to him because his wife died in a car accident, so his son needs him a lot more than most boys need their father.

Shepherd left the SAS after being wounded by a sniper while he was serving in Afghanistan. He joined the police force where he served as an undercover officer. His duties require him to infiltrate gangs of criminals, gain their trust and then, when the time is right, betray them to the police who, thanks to Shepherd’s reports, almost always turn up in the nick of time and catch the bad guys red handed. Because of the nature of Shepherd’s work, most of the novels start with a long description of a heist in progress. Of course, those readers familiar with the structure of the books know what is going on and they will happily play the interesting game of "guess which one of these criminals is Dan Shepherd" (he never uses his real name so his identity is not always obvious). Of course, readers who are new to the books will be puzzled. Where’s Dan Shepherd? Didn’t the blurb say this was a Dan Shepherd novel? Did the printer bind the wrong book between the covers? Presumably these readers will be quite surprised when Shepherd’s identity is finally revealed. Either way, it’s a fun game to play.

In later books, Shepherd moves away from the police force and joins SOCA (the Serious Organised Crime Agency). Its remit defines it as the British equivalent of the American FBI. However its operatives are not policeman and they do not have the power of arrest. Shepherd derives much amusement from the fact that even though his duties have not changed, his status certainly has and now he can quite legitimately describe himself as a civil servant. That makes his life a lot easier in social situations when new acquaintances ask him what he does for a living. "I’m a civil servant," he says, telling the exact truth. "Very boring." That last statement is a lie of course, but by that stage the acquaintance has changed the subject. All civil servants are, by definition, very, very boring.

In SOCA, Shepherd builds a close rapport with his boss, Charlotte Button. She came to SOCA from MI5 and she makes no secret of the fact that her appointment as the head of SOCA will only be temporary. The field experience she gains with SOCA will stand her in very good stead when she returns to MI5. Eventually that day dawns and she asks Shepherd if he will come and work with her at MI5. By this time Shepherd is getting quite disillusioned with the role that SOCA plays and so he accepts her offer. All the remaining books in the series tell of his adventures as a spook.

But whether he is working for the police or for SOCA or for the security services, his role stays much the same and his ability to get close to the bad guys remains pivotal.

The major strength of these books, and one of the things that makes Shepherd so much more believable than the heroes of similar books by other authors, lies with the moral quandaries that Shepherd finds himself confronting. Nothing is ever completely black and white in Shepherd’s world. His undercover role is dishonest in and of itself of course.  But even putting that to one side, he still often finds himself questioning what he is called upon to do, particularly when he finds himself investigating people who he has learned to like and with whom he has some sympathy.

By definition, his fight can never be a fair one, and more often than not he finds himself using tactics that are the same – or at least very similar – as those used by his opponents. Under those circumstances who can say which one of them is the bad guy?  How can he legitimise his double dealing? His motives are good, by his lights at least, and maybe sometimes the end really does justify the means. But often the men he goes up against could easily say the same things about themselves, and who is to say that they are wrong? Shepherd has no real answers to these questions and he does find it troubling because he is a man with a conscience.

I think what I am really saying is that these novels are a lot more than just simple minded action thrillers. Certainly they are filled with thud and blunder – Shepherd’s almost superhuman SAS skills are often brought into play – but nevertheless the books remain thoughtful thrillers (if that isn’t an oxymoron). They deal with real issues taken straight from the headlines of the day, and they debate those issues on a lot of different levels. That’s the hallmark of a very clever writer.

Stephen Leather Hard Landing Hodder & Stoughton
Stephen Leather Soft Target Hodder & Stoughton
Stephen Leather Cold Kill Hodder & Stoughton
Stephen Leather Hot Blood Hodder & Stoughton
Stephen Leather Dead Men Hodder & Stoughton
Stephen Leather Live Fire Hodder & Stoughton
Stephen Leather Rough Justice Hodder & Stoughton
Stephen Leather Fair Game Hodder & Stoughton
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