This may, on reflection, be the most violent thriller I’ve ever read. The body count among the spear carriers is, of course, high, with assorted henchmen, bystanders and unnamed villains coming to bloody ends through sprayed gunfire, explosions and all manner of mayhem. But where Tom Knox really distinguishes himself is in the winnowing fan with which he sifts his major characters: by the end of the book, there’s barely a single named character left standing. So, word of advice if you read the book: don’t get too attached to anyone; they probably won’t make it to the end alive.
Having said that, this is real page-turning stuff, whisking through gruesome murders (only, they turn out not to be murders but something much worse, believe it or not), enough exotic locations to stretch the budget of a major Hollywood studio, and brisk run throughs of the more sanguinary of South American native cultures, in particular the quite horrible Moche.
As an aside, the Conquistadors, having been extolled for centuries as Western Imperialism rolled across the globe, have over the last fifty years been denigrated and reviled for precisely the same reason: as the first wave of imperialists. And, yes, they were, some of them, blood soaked, gold mad and, in some cases, actually mad. But reading about the native South American civilisations, seethed in the blood of human sacrifice on a truly industrial scale, I begin to wonder if our current excusing of this as charming cultural practices is as patronising as the previous attitude of dismissal; maybe – and I say this with hesitation – maybe not all cultures are equal; maybe some cultures should be destroyed. And, yes, wiping out the Aztecs meant the loss of some fabulous feathered head dresses but should any culture that depends on ripping the heart out of people actually be allowed to exist? At least the Conquistadors suffered no paralysing bouts of moral equivalence; they brought the blood priests down.
Going back to the author, did you know that Tom Knox is the son of DM Thomas, author of The White Hotel and major literary figure of the 1980s and 90s? Literature, like politics and movies, is turning into a family franchise. I thoroughly enjoyed Tom Knox’s blogs in the Telegraph, so thought I’d try his books. While this isn’t likely to win the Booker Prize (although I bet many more people will finish it than have finished The Narrow Road to the Deep North or even Midnight’s Children, the novel that pipped The White Hotel to the Booker Prize), and it still carries a few infelicities that are the mark of a first-time thriller writer (a Guardian journalist as brawling, tough guy hero?), its pace and inventiveness and the truly extraordinary imagination applied to methods of dying means that I am sure I will read some more of his thrillers in future. But, on the whole, I’m rather glad this hasn’t been optioned and turned into a film. There are some things I would rather not see, and this book has quite a few of them!