Former British Army officer and veteran of the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia, David Blaylock is now Home Secretary. As a northern lad, from a community hard hit by Thatcher’s policies in the 1980s, he’s an unlikely Tory minister, but he has a strong sense that we all must bear individual, rather than collective, responsibility for our problems. That doesn’t stop him from having occasional crises of conscience when his PM – the Captain – and the rest of the cabinet force him to take tough decisions.
Richard T Kelly’s second novel begins with Blaylock in Bosnia, in a tense confrontation with some serious, and seriously armed, mercenaries fighting for the Bosnian Muslims. They tell Blaylock to retreat and, on this occasion, he does, sorely aware of what constitutes the better part of valour.
Skip a few years forward and Blaylock is out for his morning jog. And someone is behind him, following him, keeping pace with him. Blaylock shifts up a gear, tries to lose his pursuant. He heads into a housing estate where he sees a young man trying to break into a car. He confronts the lad, who takes a swing. Blaylock dodges and smacks him, but is hit by the lad’s mate. Help soon arrives in the capable form of his Special Branch protection officer, the man Blaylock had been trying to shake.
Blaylock’s citizen bravery makes the newspapers, and his colleagues at the ministry start calling him Rocky, but maybe more because of his infamous violent temper than the earlier confrontation.
The Home Secretary then gets on with his routine. He attends cabinet meetings, hands out awards, signs – or doesn’t sign – MI5 surveillance requests, listens to concerns from pressure groups, deals with queries from the press, quells budget complaints from senior police officers, and minds his back from snide attacks by fellow ambitious cabinet ministers.
There’s a threat to his life, but that’s easily dealt with. There’s a scathing profile in the press, but he gets revenge by planting a story about his closest rival. There’s a terrorist threat, and Blaylock helps save the day.
In short, after a suspenseful, promising start, we then get a cabinet minister’s daily routine for the next 400 pages, often in great detail. Many issues are debated in The Knives, and both sides are presented. Should right wing extremists be allowed to march through the streets? How should we deal with domestic violence? How can we limit the numbers of illegal immigrants? What’s the best way to engage the Muslim community to deal with extremism? How can we safely introduce an identity card scheme?
The issues and arguments aren’t be new to anyone who follows the news. Unfortunately, these are also often the kind of people who read political novels. And they won’t get any juicy insider details you’d find from other novelists with closer and longer-terms ties to the establishment. And, in post-brexit Britain many of the debates, particularly those on Europe, now seem very dated.
All that could be forgiven if the plot was strong, but The Knives reads too much like a description of a politician’s day to day work. It’s almost a fictional memoir. Blaylock has some personal issues, but those storylines and outcomes are sadly predictable. There is also no main thread or goals running through the narrative to take the reader through to the end. Instead, Blaylock’s life seems episodic, making it all too easy for the reader to close the book and never care what happens next.
Any Cop?: At a time when British politics has never been so sensational, any fictionalisation would have to be especially dramatic, and The Knives, despite showing early promise, isn’t nearly dramatic or engaging enough.