A certain tribe of readers loves to know how big a hole a .50 Browning machine gun can blow in a man’s head. Or all about ‘the one-inch steel deadbolt and three-quarter-inch anti-pick latch’ on a hotel’s electronic door lock. Or to be able to delineate characters according to the watches they wear – is he a Breitling kind of guy, or an Omega Seamaster man?
This tribe of readers is called ‘blokes’, and they lap up the tech spec of Andy McNab’s actioners in their millions. If you’ve never read a book like his 14th Nick Stone thriller (there’s no way the hero could have been called Nick Flowers), then the testosterone heat coming off the pages will stun you.
So, female readers, be warned: reading this book could put hairs on your chest.
Dead Centre kicks off – literally – with a punch-up. Nick Stone is in Aceh Province after the tsunami with his mercenary colleagues Mong and BB. They are there to retrieve compromising documents from the devastation on behalf of a dodgy foreign corporation. Mong and BB are about to pulverise each other, there being no looters, soldiers or separatists to have a ruck with at this very moment. Nick Stone makes a half-hearted attempt to stop them – but then BB has it coming, and gets a solid pasting. Blokes will be blokes.
After the ensuing action in a burning office block in Aceh, the story becomes a hostage thriller. Mong’s wife and son, along with BB, are abducted by Somalian pirates and Nick has to broker their return. The novel is part action yarn, part travel adventure, with Nick as tour guide, giving no-nonsense, ex-squaddie insights into foreign climes. While aid agency doctors run around ‘in full George Clooney mode’ and Somalian inter-gang shoot-outs are so anarchic they just need ‘the Benny Hill music for this performance to be complete’, Nick, on the other hand, is a bloke’s bloke who always knows how to get the bloody jobs done.
The action switches between Moscow, London, the French Alps, and most evocatively to Mogadishu, where the writing conveys a powerful impression of this chaotic, frightening city, but also offers insights into its history and Western culpability in its descent into mayhem. Either Andy McNab has travelled to just about every war-devastated hell-hole around or his research is brilliant, but the settings are described vividly and with energy.
How does Nick Stone compare with that other monster-selling action hero, Jack Reacher? Stone shows more humour in this first-person narrative, so that a German having an argument sounds like ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger with a wedgie’. And we get insights into his background as an unloved child, whereas Reacher is always enigmatic.
In fact, despite the machismo and gadgets, a little emotional stuff does slip into the narrative, particularly regarding Nick’s eagerness to make a go of his relationship with Russian TV news reporter Anna. There’s even a good twist here…
Dead Centre is written with brio. While it’s easy to focus on the action and bloodshed, the writing is skilful enough to keep the characters alive in your mind once the book is finished. As a bonus, you’ll learn how to hold a Glock and fire a flare cartridge.
While reading this book, I heard the SAS hero and author McNab on Radio 4. Having expected him to rant like Phil Mitchell, I was surprised when he sounded mild mannered and mischievous. Interesting bloke.