The first review of Live Fire has just gone up on Amazon.co.uk. It was posted by Joe Haschka, who is one of Amazon's top-rated reviewers. I think Joe is one of the best reviewers in the business and he should be working for a national newspaper or magazine. I'm such a fan that I borrowed his name for one of the mercenaries in Hot Blood!
Anyway, here's what he wrote:
Carrying a torch for Charlie?
In LIVE FIRE, author Stephen Leather's hero of several novels, Dan "Spider" Shepherd, an undercover operative with Her Majesty's Serious Organized Crime Agency (SOCA), is off to Thailand to infiltrate a Pattaya-based British gang of master bank robbers that periodically returns home to replenish the funds for its exorbitant lifestyle. Meantime in London, a home-grown cell of Muslim jihadists is planning a bloody outrage that'll kill hundreds. Because of Spider's particular karma, the two plots ultimately intersect.
Leather spends much of his time living in Thailand. Therefore, it's no surprise that the storyline of LIVE FIRE puts Shepherd there for most of the narrative, but is somewhat surprising that the author has taken so long in the series to do so. Leather's physical description of Pattaya and its status as "the biggest single prostitution center in the world" suggests a comfortable familiarity with the place. (For a depiction of the Thai sex industry, see Stephen's excellent novel, PRIVATE DANCER.)
For readers whose first encounter with Spider is LIVE FIRE, the plot deserves 5 stars. For one such as me, who's followed his exploits over the years, it rates perhaps 4. The Shepherd character has perhaps become too familiar and/or I've become jaded.
In order to introduce the new reader to Dan's career path with SOCA, the narrative inevitably begins with the end game of a crime caper from which Spider must extract himself as the cops close in but before his cover is blown. Then, he immediately gets new marching orders to follow for the duration of the story from his boss, Charlotte "Charlie" Button. Subsequently, there are a couple pages in which Dan, a single father, has a guilt trip when he tells his young son, Liam, and his dead wife's parents that he's off on another job and won't be around to spend quality time. (While I know this digression establishes Spider's just-a-regular-bloke humanity to newbies, perhaps next time we could move forward a decade when Liam is interested in girls and won't miss Dad so much.)
It's in LIVE FIRE that Dan is first inferred to be carrying a torch for his boss, Charlie Button, for which felling evidence surfaces during a visit to one of Pattaya's bars:
"There were two pneumatic blondes dancing topless and a stunning redhead in a red thong and high heels doing a solo on the second podium ... Two more girls joined the redhead. One was a blonde with wavy hair, green eyes and milk-white flawless skin, the other a brunette with a pageboy hair-cut and dark brown eyes. She was like Charlotte Button, Shepherd thought, disconcerted.
'You like her?' asked Sergei.
Shepherd reddened like a schoolboy who'd been caught looking at a pornographic magazine. 'She's fit,' he said."
Now, I bring this up because I think Button one of the more intriguing characters of the Spider series. Plus, I suspect that she's hot. So I'd like to take the cheeky liberty of suggesting to the author the emphasis of a future book, i.e. that the narrative focus be on Charlie with Spider as an ancillary character. Thus, the saga of the latter can continue, albeit through the perspective of someone else, while a different facet of Dan's world can be developed and the repetitive mold of the series as a whole broken. Thinking outside the box.
Alternatively, some act of violence by one of the jihadist groups fermenting in the U.K. might seriously cripple or kill Liam. The emotional devastation could transform Shepherd into an agent of vengeance. One of Leather's first books, THE CHINAMAN, took that general approach, and it was one of his best reads.
Are you with me on this, Stephen?
All of this said, I'll keep reading installments of the Spider series for as long as they continue to be penned; I'll even put them ahead of any of Andy McNab's thrillers in the unread queue on my bookshelf.
As always, Joe makes a lot of good points. That's one of the reasons I enjoy his reviews so much, he doesn't just say what the book is about and whether or not he liked it, he digs deeper and raises issues about the book that give the writer and reader alike something to think about.
He's quite right that I haven't written too many thrillers set in Thailand, despite being very familiar with the country. Private Dancer and Confessions Of A Bangkok Private Eye were both published in Thailand, but the only thrillers to be set there prior to Live Fire were The Solitary Man and The Tunnel Rats. Both were great thrillers (I think The Tunnel Rats is one of my all-time best works) but neither sold as well as books like Tango One or the Spider Shepherd series. Books set in Asia simply don't sell as well as books set in the UK. We'll see how Live Fire does!
Joe has also hit the nail on head re the familiarity factor with the Spider Shepherd stories - and neatly outlines what might be described as the formula.... there is a big bang opening, then we meet Spider undercover, then he gets his new mission, then he goes and meets his son who is upset at Spider being away. There is no getting away from it, that's the structure! Maybe I should try changing it this time.... I'm not sure. Part of the reason the series is so successful is that it is a tried and tested formula, but I wouldn't want anyone to get jaded!
I smiled at Joe's suggestion that I should do a book with Charlotte Button as the central character - I have been planning that for some time. And I have already started on a novel with Richard Yokely as the main character, in which Spider Shepherd makes a minor appearance!
And I laughed out loud at his suggestion that Shepherd's son, Liam, should be crippled or killed. I have thought about that so many times! I did go to see an agent in New York who said that he liked the books but thought that Liam should be sent off to boarding school as he got in the way of the plots! I guess the reason I haven't killed off Liam is that he does humanise Shepherd. And once I get rid of Liam, it's irrevocable.... there's no going back. I am still thinking about removing Liam, but if I did decide to go ahead and do something, I'd have to check it with my editor first. I do like the idea of Shepherd being on a mission of vengeance to avenge his dead son, but I do worry about where I would go from there.... Joe is absolutely right about The Chinaman - my first big bestseller - but the problem with The Chinaman was that I really had no choice but to kill him off at the end!