Wicked Game by Matt Johnson (Orenda Books)

It is just over a year to the day that I finished and semi-reviewed Matt Johnson’s self published version of Wicked Game, which inspired me to start reviewing the books I was reading. One year on, I’m a little more experienced in writing book reviews and it seems that I’ve come full circle, as I write this review for the revamped version of Wicked Game, published by the fantastic Orenda Books. I loved the original book, despite it not necessarily being a genre of book that I would normally read, and I’ve been looking forward to reading this new version of the book for quite some time.

Wicked Game tells Robert Finlay’s story, a former SAS officer who has just put in a transfer from Royalty Protection to become a police Inspector at Stoke Newington Police Station. When past events, and past enemies, come back to haunt him, Finlay finds himself using his old skills and contacts to fight for his life to protect his wife, Jenny and his daughter, Becky. Torn between running and facing his fear to protect his family, Finlay is forced to revisit his life before Jenny to fight against enemies who are targeting him and his friends and find out why they are targets.

Johnson originally wrote Wicked Game as a therapeutic way of dealing with his own battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and he uses his own experiences to authentically mirror the effects of P.T.S.D., not only in Finlay, but also in other characters too, to some extent. Most of the characters have suffered some kind of traumatic event and Johnson depicts the effects of this terrible disorder so well, particularly in Finlay, as it becomes apparent that it has it’s grip on him, even if he doesn’t realise it. The symptoms are eating away at him, exacerbated by the turn of recent events. Johnson cleverly adds the nuances of P.T.S.D. in the characters in an understated manner, illuminating how the symptoms are barely acknowledged by the characters, as they seem to be in a state of denial about their inner turmoil.

This novel is gripping from the first chapter. Johnson has written a great combination of fast-paced action and character exploration to keep the reader equally emotionally attached and invested into the plot. He constructs the elements well, with red herrings and clues along the way so that by the time you get to the end, there is a “Eureka!” moment where it all comes together. What is astonishing is that you could easily imagine such a situation happening in real life. It does not read as being exaggerated or over the top, and at a time when terrorism is in the news on a daily basis, the authenticity of Johnson’s novel gives plenty of food for thought about our own social and political situation.

The original novel was quite heavy on the police/soldier jargon, particularly in the first few chapters, which was fine for me, as I am happy to look things up that I’m not sure on. However, this has been toned down in this rewrite, which makes the narrative much slicker and whilst the jargon appeared to add an extra layer of authenticity in the original book when I read it then, having read it now it has been toned down,  it is no less authentic without it. In fact, it reads much better and the focus is on the action and the characters, which makes it a much richer narrative. The narrative voice has been altered too, which allows the reader to consider the action from the viewpoint of the other main players, as well as Finlay.

I was overjoyed to find that my one of my favourite chapters in the original book had remained and I was, once again, full of admiration for the likeable, feisty Jenny, Finlay’s wife. I’d like to think that I would be like Jenny – a supportive, loving wife who has every confidence in her man to support her and their daughter, whatever it takes, and can think with her head, not just her heart. I’m not sure how much I would live up to that (not necessarily that great at thinking with my head rather than my heart) , but Johnson has written her so well, I’m totally in awe of this literary character. She does not feature that often in the book, but she is referred to continuously and is fundamental to Finlay’s decision-making and she, along with Becky, are Finlay’s reasons for living, and ultimately what he is trying to protect.

Wicked Game is a wonderful depiction of the importance of friendship, cameraderie, honour and respect in the face of adversity in unknown quantities.  Finlay is not an obvious hero. He plays down his victories and has a rather unremarkable view of himself. He admits to his strengths, but quite modestly. I think that this is one of the reasons why Finlay himself is such a likeable character and why the reader champions him from the outset. Finlay’s struggle with the symptoms of P.T.S.D adds an extra emotional level for the reader, strengthening sympathetic feelings for our unsung hero.  Johnson has written a brilliantly multi-layered narrative that has a great plot, engaging characters, and although I knew the story, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it again. The original book was my very first Book of the Month and the new and improved Wicked Game absolutely gets my seal of approval, for what it’s worth. Johnson is an incredibly skilled writer and I cannot wait to read and review the sequel, Deadly Game. Again!