Reviews / Thriller / Crime Fiction

Book Review: Smokescreen by Khaled Talib

smokescreen khaled talib

Thanks to Frederick Forsyth, Ian Fleming and John Le Carre, the last 100 years had had its share of cold war espionage novels. While CIA, MI6, and KGB kept us highly entertained, maybe we need a break from the familiar landscapes of US, Britain and Russia. How about an intriguing plot involving Israel and Singapore with a touch of Cairo? Khaled Talib, in his debut novel, brings you a cold blooded and action packed world of espionage different from the conventional thrillers.

The Story

Jethro Westrope, a journalist, accidentally learns about an international conspiracy that involves the assassination of the Prime Minister of Israel. However, he is falsely accused of murder and someone tries to use him as a smokescreen to divert attention from the actual sinister plot. Jet struggles against mighty odds and finds in himself situations that are out of his control. But he has to stop the assassination or else lose his life to serve someone else’s purpose.

“You’re just the unlucky guy chosen to die” Jet is told. He is to be blamed for the assassination of the Prime Minister. Can Jet survive?

What’s so good

“Smoke clouded the man’s face like a Tuareg’s desert veil as he exhaled a long, apple-scented plume from the sheesha’s looping pipe. It bolstered the disguise he wore in the languid summer afternoon at El Fishawy Café in Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili souk district: a fake moustache and a thick goatee that seemed to make his round chin smile more, a pair of dark metal-framed sunglasses, a long-flowing brown galabeya, and a white turban.”

The setting and storyline is fresh, and this comes as a welcome change in a genre quite saturated with clichés. The exotic feel of the thriller gets you excited from the very beginning. A combination of Israel, Singapore and Egypt can hardly go wrong, eh?

Khaled’s attention to details, comprehensive knowledge of local culture and political machinery makes the plot completely believable. The characters look real and the dialogues are carefully crafted. Cunning spies, merciless assassins, shady politicians — Smokescreen is nothing less than a Hollywood blockbuster. Khaled’s sharp sense of humor adds to the fun.

Smokescreen, with its fast pace and Jason Bourne like situations, will remind you of Ludlum’s novel. Khaled said in an interview that he was fascinated with The Bourne Identity. Smokescreen could have easily been a rip-off of the classic thriller but to his credit, Khaled succeeds in making his novel something different. Jet is not a trained killer like Bourne. He is a common journalist forced into the world of Bourne. And that makes his adventure so sublime.

Khaled Talib, a former journalist and a full time writer, has made an impressive debut. We will be waiting for more from him.

Smokescreen at Amazon.
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News from the Book World

French Thriller Writer Gérard de Villiers Dies

Gérard de Villiers

Gérard de Villiers, one of the bestselling thriller writers of all time, passed away a couple of weeks back. The 83 year old French writer died of cancer.

His spy thrillers — Son Altesse Sérénissime aka SAS — serve as an example of one of the longest running series in the history of espionage fiction. De Villiers wrote 200 SAS novels, which sold more than 150 million copies and were translated into several languages. SAS novels always had provoking covers — usually a semi-nude female clutching a gun.

Gérard de Villiers When Ian Fleming died in 1964, De Villiers tried to take his place with his brand of espionage thrillers. His protagonist Malko Linge is a Austrian aristocrat, who acts as a freelance agent for the CIA and embarks on perilous missions across the globe. Like Bond, he is vulnerable to femme fatales. SAS novels have a heavy dose of sex and gunplay, but are somewhat different from Bond books in terms of style.

De Villiers had a lot of sources in intelligence agencies, which gave him crucial information about real life espionage. His journalistic background gave him a thorough geopolitical knowledge too. So it’s not surprising that his books, though formulaic, were too close to reality and often mentioned events like assassination of the President of Egypt before the actual incident took place.

De Villiers was often accused by the critics of extreme right wing views, racism, and cheap entertainment. He was kind of sad about this; once he said “They cannot ignore me, but they have given me no recognition.” De Villiers’ success in English-language market was limited, and his books were never made into Hollywood blockbusters. But if globally considered, he was a publishing sensation and had success few writers in the genre could achieve.

Hopefully, we shall have new translations of his novels soon enough. Sleep well Mr. De Villiers.

Gérard de Villiers Gérard de Villiers Continue reading

Opinion & Featured Articles / Reviews

Top 10 Spy Novels of All Time

vintage cover art

Are you a dedicated collector of espionage novels? If yes, check out the following list to make sure you haven’t missed the classics of the genre.

the spy who came in from the cold john le carreThe Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre (1963)

The Story of a British agent who is about to end his professional career, but is sent to one final assignment. While Ian Fleming pampers his hero with sultry seductresses, fast cars, and vodka martini, John Le Carre offers you believable characters and stories where spies act like spies.

From Russia with Love, Ian Fleming (1957)from russia with love ian fleming

Bond takes on Russia’s counter-intelligence agency SMERSH, who plots to kill the MI5 agent in the context of a carefully contrived scandal. The hugely successful 1963 film adaptation (starring Sean Connery) has turned this novel into a cult espionage book.

the secret agent joseph conradThe Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907)

Mr Verloc, a secret agent, gets involved in an anarchist conspiracy, but things go horribly wrong. The Secret Agent stands for everything that James Bond is not. Conrad makes a fine synthesis of politics, spying and moral anarchy to write an atypical spy classic that has multiple layers of meaning.

The 39 Steps by John Buchan (1915)the 39 steps john buchan

On the eve of WWI, Richard Hannay — a bored London guy — gets entangled in an intricate web of codes and homicide. Buchan piles improbability upon improbability and brings about nothing profound. Read simply because it’s a brilliant story, brilliantly told. Check out the classic Hitchcock film too.

dashiell hammett red harvestRed Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

More a hardboiled piece than a spy novel, Red Harvest tells the story of the Continental Op, who takes on an entire town to avenge the murder of an honest citizen. A gushing, violent masterpiece of crime fiction and the best Dashiell Hammett novel without question.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré (1974)tinker tailor soldier spy john le carre

George Smiley is assigned to identify and destroy a double agent in British Intelligence. A really tricky novel where office politics and international espionage are hardly distinguishable. It’s unlike anything you get to read in spy fiction. Watch the film version starring Gary Oldman.

the bourne identity robert ludlumBourne identity by Robert Ludlum (1980)

Jason Bourne wakes up to find that his memory is gone. Why someone wants him dead? What are his secrets? Who is he? A great dose of adventure, action, and conspiracy with some surprising twists. The film adaptation, though pretty good, differs from the book.

The Man Who was Thursday By G.K. Chesterton (1908)the man who was thursday gk chesterton

This classic spy story is about a detective who infiltrates a group of anarchists. The Man Who was Thursday is part mystery, part philosophy, and part fantasy. This is an allegorical tale, which needs multiple reading. Recommended for readers with a taste for thought-provoking books.

impossible virgin peter o donnellThe Impossible Virgin, Peter O’Donnell (1971)

Modesty and her lieutenant, Willie Garvin take on Brunel — the savage killer — in Central Africa and fight for the secret of the Impossible Virgin, a key to enormous wealth. Incorrect political attitudes, quirky characters, and lots of hand-to-hand combat make this action-adventure novel too much fun.

Guns of Navarone, Alistair MacLean (1963)the guns of navarone Alistair maclean

Five men sent to silence the Guns of Navarone. Can they do what an entire navy could not? A tense WWII thriller that was made into an equally good movie starring Gregory Peck. Detailed military strategies and plot twists will keep you guessing till the end.

What’s your favourite spy thriller? Continue reading

Down Memory Lane (Authors & Events) / Opinion & Featured Articles

The Return of the Occult: Bloomsbury Re-publishes Dennis Wheatley’s Novels

dennis wheatley

Back in the 1950s, Dennis Wheatley was a big name in the pulp market. His first novel — The Forbidden Territory — was an immediate success. It was reprinted seven times in seven weeks, translated in multiple languages, and the film rights were brought by none other than Alfred Hitchcock himself. Thereafter, Wheatley wrote numerous bestselling novels. His most famous work is the celebrated black magic potboiler — The Devil Rides Out.

Outselling Agatha Christie, Wheatley was one of the most popular thriller and occult writer of his time. But like Edgar Wallace, he faded into oblivion soon after his death. His distinctive world of jumbled pulp and esoteric was forgotten. No doubt, that was largely undeserved. James Bond is still widely popular, but few readers are aware that Wheatley’s Gregory Sallust Series had substantial influence on Ian Fleming. As The Guardian rightly points out, Fleming borrowed three major elements from Wheatley — sex, snobbery and sadism.

Dennis Wheatley fans will be delighted to know that Bloomsbury Reader, which offers a large selection of out-of-print ebooks, is re-publishing his books in print and ebook format. They have published 20 ebooks and three paperbacks (The Forbidden Territory, The Devil Rides Out, and To the Devil a Daughter) in the first lot and more will follow. Click here to get the complete list of Wheatley books available from Bloomsbury.

dennis wheatleyThis is the first time Wheatley’s books are available in digital format. For those of you who love e-books, this is great news. Also, a lot of old pulp books are hard to find these days, like those written by Seabury Quinn. I do hope that Bloomsbury re-publishes them too.

Dennis Wheatley’s titles are published by Bloomsbury Reader on 10th October 2013; eBook GBP RRP: £6.99, Paperback RRP: £7.99;

With the retro trends getting popular again, Wheatley’s second innings should be a successful one. Moreover, his novels are tailor made for Hollywood. Hammer Films made some fine movies based on his books (The Devil Rides Out is a cult classic), but special effects were hardly the strong points of those films. With the highly developed modern CGI, remake of The Devil Rides Out and other Wheatley movies can yield phenomenal box office results. Wheatley’s novels — replete with satanic rituals, diabolic corruptions and political machinations — can make incredibly dramatic scripts.

Welcome back ‘The prince of thriller writers”. Thanks again Bloomsbury.

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Reviews / Thriller / Crime Fiction

Book Review: The Litigators by John Grisham

john grisham
Bored with serious stuff? Have a look at John Grisham’s latest legal thriller — The Litigators. It is a surprisingly quick read with an intriguing plot, three dimensional characters and a lot of courtroom drama. As for fans of the author, this is arguably Grisham’s best effort in recent years (though not without a few issues).

The story

The partners at Finley & Figg — a law firm — have been in trenches for too long. They’re looking for a big break and desperately hoping for a Jackpot. They get lucky when a disillusioned yet talented young lawyer — David Zinc — joins their firm.  Finley & Figg can handle big cases now and opportunity comes to them in the form of a lawsuit against a big pharma company. In its enthusiasm, the small law firm takes on a formidable armada of lawyers who represent the drug company. What happens next?

What’s so good

A lot of people who opine that Grisham is no longer capable of creating “real” and “living” characters should read The Litigators. Grisham presents some memorable, believable, annoying, despicable, and likable guys in this book (the peevish Oscar Finley, the corrupt Wally Figg, and the sexy defense attorney — Nadine being the best examples).

You’ve got a well-crafted and a gripping story. The logical plotline of the book does not demand willing suspension of disbelief. And the high Entertainment Quotient keeps you tensed and engaged. A book that you cannot put down easily is certainly worth reading.

The not-so-good stuff

The story, though intriguing and entertaining, is formula driven and will seem predictable if you have already read a few John Grisham books.

This is not particularly an issue with this book, but with Grisham’s writing in general: some readers are sick and tired of Grisham trying to show legal profession in a negative light. The litigators too highlights corruption and greed in legal business. You aren’t deliberately trying to be monothematic and boring, are you Mr. Grisham? Isn’t it time to try something new within the boundary of legal thriller?


The Litigators is worth the cover price, but you’ve a feeling that Grisham has not bothered to develop the story to the full extent. It’s a fun ride, but it’s shallow too; it gives you the satisfaction of reading a gossip magazine, not a book. If you are missing John Grisham classics, then it’s time to re-read The Firm may be. Continue reading