Deadly Game by Matt Johnson

I owe Matt Johnson a great deal of gratitude. He was one of the earliest supporters of Segnalibro.co.uk and it was after reading his début novel that I decided to try my hand at book reviewing. I used my experience of reading Wicked Game, alongside Dance with the Enemy by Rob Sinclair to show how I decided not to discount the idea of reading any particular book simply because of the genre it fell into.  (A New Approach to Reading – 1st April 2015) I really enjoyed Wicked Game despite expecting that I would not and I had been eagerly awaiting the sequel. I wasn’t disappointed. I promised Matt an honest review, and here it is.

At the end of Wicked Game, Robert Finlay was left reeling after he had almost been killed in a revenge plot where a number of his SAS colleagues had been murdered. His preoccupation with his own troubles is short-lived as the 9/11 terrorism attacks shock the world to its core. Deadly Game picks up with Finlay a few weeks later, as Finlay and his family have been put into a safe house while the Security Services investigate previous events to make sure that they are out of danger. Finlay has a new job on a CID team that is investigating the sex trafficking trade and the events of Wicked Game are still resonating as MI5 and MI6 try to bring the investigation to a close to suit their own agendas. Finlay also makes some new friends in Romania which may not be all that it seems. However, the main storyline of this novel is Finlay’s state of mind as he is overcome with symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These symptoms were present to an extent in Wicked Game, but following recent events, Finlay finds himself battling the symptoms and struggling to keep it under control.

Anyone hoping for an action-packed novel similar to Wicked Game may be a little disappointed, as Johnson changes his approach, focusing more on Finlay’s reactions to the action rather than the physical action itself. Personally, i think that this makes for a truly brilliant narrative. In fact, if the focus had been on big action scenes, Finlay’s P.T.S.D. would have been overshadowed, and that would be a real shame, as Johnson seamlessly embroiders the symptoms of this disorder throughout the narrative showing how it creeps into every little nuance of everyday life. Deadly Game is more about strategy, mind games and the hidden agendas of the military, the security services and the criminals; ultimately it is a tale of how the hero manages to overcome his demons (to an extent) for the greater good.

The way that Johnson shows how Finlay’s P.T.S.D. is developing throughout this book makes the reader question Finlay’s responses and judgements which adds an extra layer of suspense as to what is going to happen next, as Finlay himself becomes an unknown quantity. The responses of those around him, particularly his wife, Jenny, who knows him better than he perhaps knows himself, enhances the sense that Finlay is becoming his own worst enemy. As Jenny points out, he is brilliant at reacting on the spot, less so when sensing and avoiding potential danger. This is demonstrated most obviously when Finlay and Jenny are invited to a wedding in Romania as a thank you to Finlay when he saves the life of the daughter of a rich Romanian publisher. He doesn’t check the family out first and this error of judgement almost becomes his undoing.

There are a couple of familiar characters from Wicked Game and a few new ones too that I hope will have a place in future Robert Finlay novels. In Wicked Game, I loved Finlay’s wife, Jenny. She doesn’t feature in a lot of the action but when we are privy to her thoughts on any given situation, her analysis is fundamental to understanding Finlay. Behind every great man is a great woman, and Jenny is certainly that. She is ever-present in Finlay’s thoughts and she grounds him. She is understanding to Finlay’s plight and she recognises that something isn’t right as his symptoms take hold. She loves him despite his inability to discuss his worries with her and he loves her. Her happiness and that of his daughter, Becky is paramount to him. Johnson displays this well in their actions and reactions to each other. Their ultimate goal is a shared one: they are both determined to keep their family together.

Kevin, Finlay’s former colleague and friend, is also back as Finlay’s partner-in-crime. Kevin is loyal to Finlay and will be there for him whenever Finlay needs him. As he recovers from his injuries after he was shot in Wicked Game, he is ultimately Finlay’s go-to guy if he needs the help of someone he can trust.

We are also introduced to a number of strong female characters in this novel. Toni Fellowes is the MI5 agent who is writing a report on the incidents that occurred in Wicked Game and  she is investigating whether there is any danger to Finlay and his family. She is determined to uncover the hidden political agendas and find out why the S.A.S. soldiers were really targeted. Was it an act of revenge as originally suggested or is there a political agenda? Her assistant, Nell, certainly thinks there is more to it. Nell has Asperger’s Syndrome and although her role in the novel is as a super-investigator who compiles information that is invaluable to Toni’s investigation, she could also be seen as an antithesis to Finlay. She is someone who doesn’t let emotion get in the way, while Finlay is struggling to keep his emotions in check.

In terms of the sex trafficking storyline, we are introduced to three very strong female police officers. The first, WPC Lynn Wainwright, is a dedicated police officer who has overcome prejudice from her male counterparts to get to where she wants to be. She is a tough cookie and her inner strength becomes crucial as she finds herself in grave danger. The second is Superintendent Wendy Russell. She is a blast from Finlay’s past and perhaps another confusion for Finlay in his turbulent state. I’m not going to elaborate further but she is instrumental in the latter half of the novel. Finally, DS Nina Brasov is an abrasive but talented detective who guides Finlay through the investigation and she is an expert on the sex trafficking industry. He relies on Nina heavily at times and she seems to have the measure of Finlay from the start.

Deadly Game is a really clever sequel to the brilliant Wicked Game. Its multi-faceted storyline gives the reader a lot to think about. At a time when we hear of the occurrence of terrorist attacks around the world throughout the media with increasing regularity, this novel has a particular resonance. As an illustration of the effects of P.T.S.D., Deadly Game is particularly effective, and while it was definitely a risk on Johnson’s part to change his approach from the first book, it really has paid off. There is enough action to capture the imaginations of those readers who enjoyed this aspect of Wicked Game, but the build up to the action is where this novel comes into its own, as we are informed of Finlay’s mindset throughout. I enjoyed Wicked Game and I enjoyed Deadly Game. I’d be struggling to pick a favourite as they are both really great reads but for different reasons. What I do know is, I can’t wait to read the next one!