Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Mark Greaney: The Gray Man

Gray Man is almost, but not quite, an anagram of M Greaney. I’m just going to leave that there.

The Gray Man is one of those books which annoys me even as I rush through it; it’s just well enough written that I don’t hurl it at the wall, while being all kinds of different wrong. On the one hand, it’s one of those annoying books which doesn’t bother to keep its stories straight; the main villain of the piece is introduced to us as a barrister, and then he flips between being a barrister and a solicitor the rest of the way through the book, as though the writer doesn’t even know that these two things are different, and that no English security expert would ever think of them as interchangeable. And indeed that the complex rules of the English legal profession are such that you can’t be both a barrister and the in-house lawyer of a vast multi-national corporation. Research. It’s not just a matter of knowing which combinations of letters and numbers are valid identifications of murdering equipment.

Rising above the detail, the book is almost entertainingly bonkers. On the one hand, the deliciously implausibly named Courtland Gentry is the world’s most shadowy assassin; on the other hand, everyone’s heard of him. That seems like some mighty subtle marketing. Anyhow, through the machinations of Nigerian politicians, it’s suddenly a good idea for him to be all dead, and so a French multinational oil-and-everything corporation mobilises lots of assassins to kill him. Lots of assassins, you say? How many exactly? A lot. They rent in hit teams from a dizzying array of second and third tier nation state kill teams; South Koreans, Botswanans, Venezuelans, Saudis, Libyans (the book was published in 2009, when there was still an actual Libya and a properly crazy man to run it) you name it. All piling in on the Gray Man to kill him at the behest of a French conglomerate in hock to the President of Nigeria. That’s almost like someone playing mad-libs to think of a convenient set of bad guys for an American audience in 2009; Nigerians? Yeah, we hate those guys, forever sending us scam emails (many of which begin with someone introducing himself as being a barrister and solicitor, come to think of it). With French stooges, because cheese-eating surrender monkeys, natch. 

A’ight. Fair enough, For the airport market, that’s practically researching your audience.

Is it any good? Well, like I say, it’s a page turner. And the Gray Man is charmingly breakable. The book reads like it was written in chunks for the internet, lurching from one setpiece to the next, but I was taken with the way that the Gray Man walks nothing off; every hairsbreadth escape puts lasting damage on him, slowing him up for the next encounter. Even though this feels like a succession of movie scenes, in a movie the hero just brushes his hair back with his fingers [1] and strolls on to the next problem like nothing even happened. In the book, it’s all hard work all the time. It doesn’t stretch to character development, but it’s still more realistic than the guff which obviously inspired it.

And for all that I’m ragging on it, there’s a certain sensibility there that left me wondering if the follow up books would be better. If Greaney got the ra-ra stupid-Matthew-Reilly lunatic hordes of enemies dumbness out of his system in the first book, the second book might have a simpler focus and a bit more room for the things which were actually good in the first book; the sense of consequence. So I’ve put the next one into the one-of-these-days queue and we’ll see if I’m right to be optimistic.


[1] exception: Jason Statham, obviously.

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