Written by John Sweeney

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung

Thomas & Mercer
RRP: £8.99 pbk
Released: July 1 2016
eBook & PBK

Is it better to remember something, or to remember nothing? The answer to that question when you are being tortured can be very important.

When it comes to torture, it will not be a matter of life or death (because, although you may not know it, that has almost certainly been decided), but whether you will suffer a little pain or a lot. And even a little pain, in context, can be too much. Take a retired school teacher, for instance: is it better for her to remember what a good little boy was one of her students many years ago, or for her not to remember him at all. If she cannot remember him, is that because he was so unmemorable, or because he was not in her class, not in her school, not even in her town, ever? Take those 'if's and 'better's, what sort of questions and what sort of prompts will guide you in the answers that you should give as your tormentor has his way with you? Every 'if' implies a question; every 'better' implies a decision: you will not be asked just one question; your torture will go on.

Joe Tiplady, protagonist, even hero, of Cold, actually has an intelligence that might consider some of these questions. At one time, when he was a cold-blooded Irish terrorist assassin, he had not begun to think, but some traumatic experiences in his training have changed him. John Sweeney describes them in detail. Tiplady, though, was a soldier, a grunt, and while not dispensable he was never in the leadership. In fact, he now has a life of a very different and quite ordinary kind: teacher, suburban man without a wife, pet owner. What he has almost forgotten, though, is that the ways of the world (and he saw some very different parts of the world to a book reviewer, particularly when he was sent for training in North Korea) have not changed while he has been out of it. The black figures he sees on the edge of the park while exercising his dog are not just corvids for Joe; they have been doing terrible damage elsewhere.

Somehow Joe has become involved; his involvement ultimately being revealed as a Hitchcockian McGuffin par excellence. The difference between Hitchcock and Sweeney, though, is that Cold is ultimately a novel based on reality. The background is the historic failure of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, and then the consequent collapse of the communist government in the USSR, and finally the rise and the methods of the current Russian nomenklatura.

Those who follow what little foreign news our press now reports will know that billionaires have arisen from the privatisation of Soviet industries, often helped by the failure of government to manage the economy. In fact, in many ways according to Sweeney, that government is mis-managing the economy, the abuse of the tax system being the mainstay of the new corruption. The figure behind it all (in Sweeney's world) is a figure known only as Zoba. That name sounds like 'Koba', which was allegedly one of Stalin's nicknames, and as Joe Tiplady starts to learn something (not as much as we readers learn, because Sweeney swaps scenes between characters and locations, so we see much more than Joe) there seems to be little difference between old Koba and new Zoba.

Read Cold and you will start to feel a sense of familiarity – at times, more than Tiplady feels, perhaps. There are 'Zeks' (hardened prisoners who have survived the gulag), and retired soldiers from the special forces, for instance; the sort of people who have shown up in Jack Reacher's world a few times; so you will have an idea of what sort of violence they have experienced and the level of violence in which they will be involved. You may also recognise some of the financial mis-dealings going on in the new East from the newspaper reports. Finally, though, the familiarity you feel will be something different: it will be – strange for a thriller, perhaps – a sense of recognition. The recognition that Sweeney has put all these things together and you can say 'Yes, now I think I know what has been going on'. It will be little comfort to you, though. This world is so cold.

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