Review: Deathlist by Chris Ryan


Deathlist by Chris Ryan, (Strike Back, #2), Trade Paperback, January 2016, 320p.

One out of 5 stars

Welcome to a devastatingly honest review of one of the latest books from one of my favourite authors. I have to give a language warning for this review. I’m full of filthy swears.

I loved Strike Back, a five star read a couple of years ago – so when I saw that Chris Ryan was writing a sequel after all these years, let me just say that my excitement levels soared. I love the Strike Back TV mini-series (the UK season, not the continuation on US seasons), and have been waiting for a return of John Porter with baited breath.

How I was disappointed. Devastated. Inconsolable. As I started reading, I was on the bandwagon of wanting to see things get interesting – it was a strange but dated premise for an action novel, but I told myself to be patient and give Ryan a chance to give one of his best characters a fitting swan song. I was confused about the way that Ryan had set up this book. He’d made some authorial choices that made no sense – for example, both of the main characters, who were often sharing scenes and working together were called John. This meant the reader had no idea which fucking John was being spoken about at any point. To add to the inability to tell the two characters apart, both were shit at their jobs, both were over the hill, old and prone to a drink or six. Often one of the characters would run somewhere wheezing and I would assume it was John. See how confusing that is? He didn’t even think to have a John and a Jon, to simplify things for the reader. So, confusion was already raining.

Next we have the alcoholism – which is such an interesting and believable character trait for a SAS man to be battling with. However, Porter seemed so washed up and beyond the brink that I had no idea how he was still serving with the elite unit, even in the training branch. This annoyed me, and then the constant references to his drinking and him quitting being such a large plot point that didn’t seem to add anything to the story. It was just him drinking whiskey and being a fuckhead.

Talking of repetition – if I hear a soldier referred to as a blade one more time, I might take a blade to my eyes so that I don’t have to see it again. Once or twice a chapter, fine. Once or twice a page? I’m hoping that my eye issues get worse and they spontaneously explode. How the hell did an editor let this go?

The plot revolved around the two John’s hunt for revenge after a terrorist attack takes out a whole bunch of SAS recruits and their instructors. The terrorist bombing was stupid too – Ryan made them a sitting duck of a target and then had them all wiped out by a bomb. No one noticed anything odd or wondered about the strange van. So so annoying. There was an interesting conspiracy thread that was introduced way too late in the plot to have been fully effective. Maybe if those elements had been introduced earlier, this novel could have been saved.

Scratch that, there is no saving this novel.

There is no saving something that is so full of casual racism and sexism. I know that these books sometimes have racist characters, but as this is becoming less and less socially acceptable, I expect authors to acknowledge in some way that their characters behaviour and language is inappropriate, whereas the omnipotent narrator of this tale actually uses the phrase “as narrow as a chinaman’s smile.” When I read a thriller from the 70’s I expect and disregard that sort of rubbish – but in a book written today? Nope. I won’t condone that. Have a racist character – fine. Write a racist book – not fine.

Shall we now move on to the sexism? There is a horrible assault on two prostitutes, who were assaulted and abducted just so that two spies could go undercover in their place. This is an actual quote from that part of the novel.

‘We don’t want to hurt you.,’ he said calmly. ‘If you stay quiet, you’ll be free in a couple of hours. You have my word. But if you make trouble, you won’t leave us any choice. Nod if you understand.’

Legs stilled. Then she nodded. it made sense. A Romanian hooker in her thirties working in Valletta. She’d probably been threatened on multiple occasions. By boyfriends… she’d made it this far in life. Therefore she was a survivor. Therefore she wouldn’t do anything to upset her captors.

Because she was a prostitute and had most likely been assaulted before it makes it okay to assault her again? It was overly rapey and this paragraph actually felt trigger-y to me. As someone who has read plenty of crime novels with horrible rape scenes, I find myself to be hard to trigger – but this was the good guys. Good guys hitting prostitutes and threatening them. These women are only referred to as ‘hookers’ if talking about them collectively, or by the nicknames ‘legs’ and ‘petite’ if talking about them singularly. Women are either sex objects or victims for abuse in this novel.

I’m not sure if my constitution has changed or if this is actually too far. The idea that it’s only men reading these books is bullshit – women are also picking up military thrillers, and I think authors need to be a little more mindful that their audience isn’t the stereotypical boys club they believe it to be.

There were two brutal torture scenes wedged in with the racism and sexism – if I was encountering one of these things I would have been able to take it all in stride, but when these misogynist assholes go from abducting women and then hacking off someones toes and then cauterizing the wounds using a blow torch. They say that if he spills the information they will give him a nice death (a bullet to the back of the head) the guy does tell all, but they continue to torture him to death. Torture isn’t cool. It’s something that does pop up in these books, and I understand that it is sometimes used in the real world – but I don’t want torture glorified. Good military fiction writers include their protagonists torturing people to add moral dilemma to their stories, to show the extent to which their characters are willing to go for the objective. I have no compassion for the “good guys” in Deathlist. They have become my antagonists and I’m now rooting for the bad guys to take these two fuckers out.

Deathlist is full of lazy and uninspired writing. It’s full of repetitive word choice. It needs some pretty heavy editing, which would include reducing the first 150p into 50, and that might not even save it. The attack on the regiment is poorly written and doesn’t get across the levels of grief that such an event would entail. It’s meant to be seen as justification for what follows in the rest of the book, but it falls short, which means the rest of the book feels like a homicidal, psychotic rampage. Queue Archer falling into this novel screaming “RAMPAGE” without any of the tongue in cheek snark and irony that cartoon character would usually contain.

This doesn’t mean that I won’t be reading the next book that Chris Ryan releases – I’ve read almost two dozen of his books and loved all but this one.

I hope Deathlist was ghost written.

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