Black Run (2021) by D L Marshall

What could be nicer than a lovely ocean trip? Well, it’s not the best thing in the world if:

  • The boat in question is a rusty transport trip;
  • Your fellow passengers are untrustworthy mercenaries;
  • The crew is untrustworthy pirates;
  • One of said untrustworthy mercenaries and/or pirates keeps sabotaging the boat;
  • You are transporting a valuable prisoner back to England;
  • There is a bounty on said prisoner that is more that you are paying your fellow mercenaries;
  • There are very unpleasant people chasing the boat that are determined to get your prisoner back

Oh, and the weather is awful too.

Just to top it all off, John Tyler’s day is about to get even worse. Because despite the prisoner being sealed up tight in a vault where the only access is through a locked hatch directly under Tyler’s bed, it seems that someone has managed to stab him through the heart…

You will recall Anthrax Island was my Book of the Year last year. Absolutely loved it, the balance of thriller a la Jack Reacher and classic mystery (with a locked room shooting). I recommended it to my book club, and the immediate feedback was that it was “a bit blokey”. That’s a fair comment, but, as I am a bloke, it didn’t bother me. I feel I should warn you though, dear reader, as, if anything, this one is even blokier…

The narrative switches back and forth in time, detailing Tyler’s exploits in capturing his prisoner in the Alps in parallel with his tribulations in transporting him back to England. There is a good reason for this split, as things that the reader might not have realised become apparent – for a long time, we have next to no information about who he is or what he has done. This is a remarkably twisty thriller – admittedly mostly on a “who is going to betray who next” way – given the action-movie nature of it. I’m not normally a fan of reading action movies, so to speak, but Marshall has an excellent descriptive voice and I never had a problem visualising what was going on.

In a Twitter exchange, the author did tell me that Anthrax Island started with the locked room and the action-thriller expanded around it. I wonder – was that the case here, or was the intent to up the action here? The locked room mystery element – and the room is very, very locked – is only a small element of the tale. It’s an effective element, but the very locked nature of the room does limit solutions and I think people who have read a few (too many?) locked room mysteries won’t be puzzled for long. It’s a tad annoying that for the plot to work, Tyler has to not notice something that he realises in hindsight, which to me is always a bit of a cheat – it means as a narrator, he won’t tell us what he’s seen. Even though, I think it’s pretty guessable.

So I can’t recommend reading this for the locked room, even if it is a proper locked room (#aproperlockedroom) but as a thriller, this is really first rate. I’d like to thank the author as my reading has been a bit erratic over the last couple of weeks and I really need a book to grab me by the throat and not let go until I’d finished it – this was that sort of book. Absolute top-draw twisty thriller, prime reading for someone who’s getting a bit tired of stories about dodgy people moving in next door, but still wants mystery and surprise in their reading. Definitely worth your time.

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