Once a regular reviewer for both Shots magazine and Page Horrific, Matt also wrote a monthly column for the weekly Hellnotes newsletter under the editorship of Judi Rohrig. He now runs an irregular blogspot at www.readerdad.co.uk
Iranian billionaire Darius Qazai is heading for retirement. When an attempt to sell portions of his business result in a report linking him with art smuggling, he hires Ikertu Consulting to dig into his past and prove that he has nothing to hide. Assigned to the case, Ben Webster takes an instant dislike to the man. As he digs into the life of Qazai, and the lives and deaths of the people closest to him, he discovers that Qazai does indeed have something to hide. With a mounting body count, and the resurfacing of an old scandal, it isn’t long before Webster finds his own life – and the lives of his family – in danger.
The Jackal’s Share sees the welcome return of Ben Webster, the protagonist of Chris Morgan Jones’ first novel, An Agent of Deceit. Still trying to come to terms with the outcome of that earlier case, Webster finds himself once more plunged into the dark political underworld of global enterprise where money, it seems, always has more value than human life. Unlike Agent, where the narrative was split almost equally between Webster and his opposite number on the Russian side of the fence, Jackal brings the former journalist more centre stage, telling the story exclusively from his point of view.
While the move from a Russian enemy to a Middle Eastern one – much of the threat comes from parties based in Iran – introduces a more immediate sense of threat for the reader, Jones still manages to maintain an old-fashioned feel throughout the novel, the same Cold War-era feel that made Agent work so well. Webster is a man who earns his living through wits and experience, with nary a ballistic pen nor pocket respirator in sight, the ubiquitous mobile phone the only electronic tool of his trade. As with Webster’s first outing, it makes a somewhat refreshing change.
Moving centre stage brings with it added danger for our favourite corporate spy. Dealing with an Iranian client, Webster quickly discovers that he is well outside his comfort zone; the assumptions he can easily make about the type of Russian with whom he usually deals are invalid and often dangerous here. The people with whom he is dealing have a seemingly endless reach, and Webster’s freedom is threatened quite early in the process. Things take a sinister turn when his wife and children are also threatened and there appears to be no easy means of escape. Jones takes this opportunity to put poor Webster through the wringer, leaving the central character physically and emotionally battered by the novel’s end, paving the path for a much different man, should we see him again in the future.
As with the first novel, Jones takes us on a tour of exotic locations – this time Cornwall, Dubai, Lake Como and Marrakech (another staple of the old-fashioned spy novels, if I remember correctly) feature heavily, and come alive at the hands of this skilled storyteller. He also spends some time fleshing out the people of his fictional world, giving us further background on returning characters – Webster’s wife Elsa and his boss, Ike Hammer, for example – and introducing us to new characters, both specific to Jackal – Darius Qazai and the creepy Yves Senechal – and ones we’re likely to see again as the world-building continues and Jones’ back catalogue grows – Fletcher Constance and Dean Oliver two characters that will hopefully show their faces again.
Jones has once again constructed a complex and involved plot that still manages to make sense at the final reckoning. Webster may be out of his depth with the shift to Middle Eastern and African politics, but it’s clear that this is far from the case for the novel’s author. As he has proven before, he has an innate ability to ration out only the information that the reader needs at any given point in time, so that there is always a surprise around the corner. It’s helped along by the fact that the reader only ever knows what Webster does, and in this way we’re often as surprised as he is when the plot takes a turn for the sinister, though, thankfully, much less bruised and battered for the experience. What results is a satisfying follow-up to An Agent of Deceit, a novel that builds on an already-strong central character, leaving the reader with a hunger for more while leaving the character’s immediate future completely in the dark; as with its predecessor, there are no happy endings here, and we can be safe in the knowledge that the events of A Jackal’s Share will shape Ben Webster – for better or worse – for future adventures.
Readers of Chris Morgan Jones’ debut novel will have been waiting for his follow-up with some measure of excitement for the past year. A Jackal’s Share fails to disappoint, living up to the exacting standard set by that first Ben Webster adventure. Building on the characters already established, Jones takes the focus from Russia – though there are hints that there might be Russian involvement in the low-level details of this second novel – and turns the spotlight on a region that is equally as alien to many Westerners, and as frightening to the current generation as the looming threat of Russia was to an earlier one. What doesn’t get lost is that Cold War-era feel that his first novel had, that sense that we might be reading the latest Le Carré or Deighton, rather than a contemporary piece of spy fiction. It’s not a bad jumping-on point for new recruits; while it does refer to the events of Agent, the two stories are completely standalone, and can be enjoyed as such. Jones has already mentioned that his third novel will shift the focus to a different character within his world, but it’s likely that we’ll see Ben Webster again (he says, hopefully). Proving that he is far from one-hit wonder, Jones’ second novel cements his position as one of the best spy novelists at work today.
This review first appeared at www.readerdad.co.uk – reprinted with acknowledgement to Matt Craig.