A few weeks ago, a friend of mine suggested that I read Gray Justice, the first in a series of novels by Alan McDermott that, by all accounts, is doing very well for itself. The reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are, on the whole, very complimentary and the blurb promises an interesting plot. I started the novel with an open mind, aware that although my friend had not particularly enjoyed it, that was no indication about how I would respond to it. Indeed, all these people who have read it and got it into the Top 10 of the Kindle chart can’t all be wrong!
Gray Justice is a novel about Tom Gray, who is left devastated after his young son is killed by a runaway car abandoned by a career criminal, followed by the suicide of his wife in the wake of this tragedy. A former member of the SAS, he decides to take matters into his own hands when the car thief gets a 15 month sentence but is let out straight away as he has served half his sentence while he was on remand. Gray sells his security services firm and, with the help of his former S.A.S. pals, he holds five career criminals in makeshift cells in an old pottery factory and sets up a website to allow the public to decide if these criminals should live or die by voting on his website. Using his army training, he builds himself a fortress to hold these criminals in while the police, security forces and media watch on.
The premise of the novel is good, however McDermott wastes it. In a book with such a plot, I would have expected to connect with Tom Gray very early on, cheering him on throughout the novel. However, we learn very little about Tom Gray. He loses his wife and child in tragic circumstances and I would have expected to feel a heavy sense of sympathy for this man but I don’t feel that the reader get this chance to really feel Tom Gray’s pain through the narrative. This pivotal event in this man’s life, that causes him to sell his house and his business to fund a vigilante scheme to bring awareness to the flawed justice system is reduced to no more than a few paragraphs. We don’t even get to experience his emotions through the other characters reactions, and there are many other characters, especially in the first few chapters. It was easy to get confused with who was who at times. I realise that Gray’s personal feelings is not what the plot is necessarily about and that there is a bigger picture to consider, but without this build up or exploration of Gray’s feelings to any great extent, the narrative just drags on without any real emotion from the reader. We get no real understanding of just quite how much this has had an impact on him. Of course, we can imagine, but I want my heart-strings to be tugged at. In Gray Justice, it just wasn’t to be.
The initial focus of the reader is on the career criminal, Stuart Boyle, as we are told his story first and his complete lack of concern for anything but the financial gain he will receive after procuring a car for someone who will pay him a meagre fee of £500. We hear all about his tricks of the trade, how he avoids the police etc. Whilst it is necessary for this information to be related to the reader, this should not be the first thing the reader encounters. Perhaps this would have worked better if we had read a bit more about Gray’s relationship with his wife and child. It could have been as simple as a typical morning at breakfast, showing some interaction as a family. The reader’s sympathy for Gray would certainly have been heightened with this simple juxtaposition of a before and after view to add to the reader’s understanding of Gray’s loss. Perhaps we could have been given an insight into how Gray’s wife descended into such a depression that she couldn’t take it anymore. Without this preparation, the reader does not get a chance to understand fully why Gray takes the course of action that he does and is left to just go along with the plot.
The narrative itself was not particularly engaging either. There is very little use of figurative language and lots of inane descriptions of car journeys and technical processes that would have been better to have been left to the imagination. I find it odd that so much of the narrative is dedicated to these mundanities when so little was given to Gray’s back story, which in my opinion, was imperative to understanding Gray’s full motivation. There was obviously some intention to add authenticity by throwing in some S.A.S. technical terms and some jargon relating to computer programming and IP addresses etc. but quite frankly, they were lost in the surrounding narrative. The things that McDermott chose to write extensively about baffled me, when there were areas that could, and should, have been expanded upon. The narrative’s momentum stalled at regular intervals because of this which made it difficult to build up any kind of suspense.
I also struggled with the part of the storyline that saw a young analyst being given a job by a senior MI5 operative who is apparently so senior, his immediate boss takes direct orders from the Home Secretary! I found it hard to believe that there is no chain of authority in MI5, however, I am not an expert in these matters. This poor young girl can’t get the attention of a senior agent so she takes it upon herself to follow a potential terror suspect, one who she knows to be extremely dangerous, along with a coach load of his cronies. I understand that perhaps the intention is for Tom Gray to inadvertently facilitate a potential terrorist threat, thus making the point that vigilantism is not the way forward, but with the real life political relevance that I would imagine McDermott was trying to emulate in this novel, I would have appreciated a more realistic plot to better make the point. There were other ways of causing a distraction, perhaps a report of a fake device, which distracted the Security Services and S.A.S. into action miles away from Tom Gray’s fortress, allowing the real terrorists to attack without any unrealistic plotting of an overzealous junior agent taking on a coach load of terrorists alone.
My interest increased in the last few chapters as the pace increased but it was very difficult to keep up as a reader, trying to mentally visualise the numerous locations of the various attackers, whilst considering where the police and media presence were situated. With the terrorists, the police, the media, the S.A.S. friends of Gray, and not to mention Gray and his band of criminals all placed in or around vehicles or various ridges and perimeters, I really wasn’t sure who was where and which characters were dead, injured or still running around. I felt like I needed a battle map similar just to get a grip on where everyone was. However, I must admit, I did find myself keen to know what was going to happen next at this point, even if I was a little confused about who was where.
The cause of Gray’s actions is completely lost in the final chapters with a bit of a summary of what happened next by someone who, I assume, is a doctor. Not all the gaps are filled, to encourage the reader to read the next novel but I’m not sure I want to. I was continually disappointed in this book, willing the author to cut out the irrelevant stuff and enhance the plot. I recently wrote about One Man Crusade by Steven Suttie (One Man Crusade by Steven Suttie) , and I absolutely loved it. The reason I mention it here is that its premise has similarities with this book in that a good man, distraught by the death and suffering of a loved one at the hands of a criminal becomes a very public vigilante to try and encourage the powers that be to change the law, gaining unprecedented support from the nation and highlighting flaws within society. With One Man Crusade, I engaged straight away with the characters. There was real depth to the narrative and every piece of information relayed was relevant to the plot. There are only a few relevant protagonists who are introduced in such a way to avoid any confusion and you got to know the personalities and lifestyles of the characters so that you cheered them on. I was moved to tears on more than one occasion reading One Man Crusade. That’s what I’d have expected to experience at some point when I read Gray Justice, given the emotional experiences of Tom Gray in the beginning. I always try to balance my reviews out of respect for the author who will have undoubtedly put blood, sweat and tears into writing their novel and, of late, the majority of them have been mainly positive but I really struggled to find positive features in this book apart from the premise itself, which was a real shame. I may read book two out of curiosity one day and perhaps my opinion of that will be completely different but, whilst this was a very good idea for a plot, its execution was severely lacking. However, apparently lots of people disagree with me and love this book, so perhaps I’m missing something…