Review: Collateral Damage by Steve Howell
At a time when the murk and immorality of the establishment is being exposed from the septic heart of Downing Street outwards, this novel puts on Latex gloves to palp its rancid underbelly. Ostensibly the story of a woman trying to learn the truth of how her journalist boyfriend died on a Libyan beach, it’s also a probing account of the difficulties of speaking truth to power, especially when those who have the power don’t want anyone speaking at all.
The woman in question, Ayesha, is a student at the London School of Economics who, desperate the learn more about the death of her beloved Tom, enlists the help of friends and specifically a junior grade lawyer called Jed. His mundane life processing residency applications and the like changes utterly when he agrees to accompany Ayesha to Tripoli, where they find the British government’s representative is only one of the barriers they have to face.
There is the challenging presence of Tom’s father, too, who blames Ayesha for his son being in north Africa in the first place. Despite the hurdles Ayesha and Jed find out enough to know there is a lot more left to uncover, so back in London they begin to talk to others who were on the same trip and helped by mysterious tip-offs by people who don’t give their names. The events in Libya set to have an entire spider’s web vibrating.
However, events soon start to spiral out of their control. Jed’s flat is broken into, its contents ransacked. A newspaper account of Tom’s death quotes Jed and names the law firm for which he works which gets him into trouble with his boss, who is then reluctantly drawn into the story.
As if that wasn’t enough, Jed starts being followed by a thug who eventually traces him to the hotel where he is lying low, threatens him with a knife and gives him a good going over just to underline the personal threat level.
But despite all this the two amateur sleuths doggedly start to edge towards the truth of things, not least when they find out that a man called Gavin, who was with Tom on the night he died, isn’t who he claims to be. Far from it.
Along the way we learn about Ayesha’s tragedy-strewn past, from the Israeli displacement of her Palestinian mother to the later horrors at the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, when an entire classroom of children she was teaching were killed.
While all of this is happening at what one has to describe as a breathless lick Jed has stumbled onto his own private mystery, triggered by clearing out some of his American photographer father’s stuff from the attic.
It turns out that Jed’s dad was similarly hounded when he was a young man, as far-off power flexed itself against him because of his communist sympathies during the paranoid era of the McCarthy witch-hunts.
Collateral Damage is a clear-eyed, crisply written and vividly contemporary novel with lots to say, or at least suggest about the dark arts and mechanisms of the Foreign Office and the shadowy men who keep the Whitehall mandarins company.
It derives much of its authenticity from the fact that mid Wales based Steve Howell is himself a journalist, who travelled to Libya as a peace activist on the first anniversary of the US air strikes against the city, this at a time when the country, under Colonel Gaddafi was close to being a pariah state.
It is interesting to note that, like the book’s hero, Jed, Howell’s own father Brandon came to the UK in the 1950s and leads to the obvious comparison of ‘like father, like son.’
Dark power play
Despite the pace of the plot, the sense of place is nevertheless convincingly conjured up, from the urban geography of London’s streets and coffee shops through the modern central district of Tripoli to the refugee camps such as Shatila in Lebanon, which this reviewer has similarly visited.
It’s also a period deftly evoked in the fine detail of things – the Free Nelson Mandela mugs, the discussions of the ethics of Live Aid, the 20 pence it took to play a game of pool in a pub at a time when the heavily advertised Stella Artois was in its heyday.
Towards the end of the book the body count goes up by one, with a death made complicated for the reader because of the sheer dastardliness of the victim.
In this it’s consistent with the moral conundrums which whirl around within the novel, where people get hurt for all sorts of reasons and where the innocent are often the collateral damage in the dark power plays of the contemporary world.
Collateral Damage is published by Quaero Publishing of Welshpool. You can buy a copy here at a special offer price.
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