The Short Version: DC Nick Belsey was trying to have a quiet end-of-shift drink when he ends up in a high-speed chase through a busy part of London. When the target seems to vanish into thin air, Belsey is intrigued – and when he discovers a network of tunnels and hideaways built during the Cold War deep beneath the city (and manages to lose a date down there), he ends up caught in something much larger than he particularly wants to be a part of. Something that might well take him down for good.
The Review: One of the more interesting successes of a novel can be when it teaches the reader something. Not in a pedantic way (not necessarily anyway) – but when the reader, intrigued by what they’ve been reading about, decides even to do a cursory Googling of a particular concept. For example: deep shelter sites in London. Oliver Harris pulls off this feat of melding a history lesson (about a relatively unknown thing) with a terrific crime/mystery plot and barely has to sacrifice any of the things that made the first Nick Belsey novel such a refreshing twist on the genre.
Let’s start with the light sacrifice that did occur, though – although sacrifice may be too strong of a word. The thing that was so compelling about Belsey in the first novel was that he was, in fact, a scummy man. He was not an anti-hero and certainly not a hero – and while he did good work in the end, you couldn’t help but think that he was still, well, a scummy man. And while he continues to be a little scummy at times in Deep Shelter, he shows some more conventional signs of being an “anti-hero”. The whole “on the run while trying to crack the case” thing may have something to do with that: it’s sort of the inevitable development that has to happen in this sort of story (otherwise, whither the stakes?) but it forces us to see Belsey as a GOOD guy because he’s wrongfully fingered for some terrible things. And while Belsey is, at heart, a good guy, he’s not a Good Guy. There were a few moments in this novel where convention overpowered that nuance.
He’s still the same guy, of course – and the droll narration, from Belsey’s close-third-person narration or from Harris’ larger authorial hand, make for some unexpected laughter at potentially strange moments. Even some of the images when the scenes aren’t necessarily ‘meant’ to be funny, like a recurring moment with Belsey coming out of the tunnels and dealing with the guards in a particular spot (don’t want to give it away), can provide a sense of humor to the novel that sets Harris (and Belsey, by extension) apart from his compatriots in the genre.
So, yes, those moments of convention for Belsey were few and far between – and, really, they don’t matter all that much because Harris turns his pen towards another deeply interesting story. For example, did you know that the world almost ended in 1983? True story! Operation Able Archer, look it up. A NATO war game that freaked the Soviets out so much that they were ready-to-go, push-the-button, let’s-end-the-whole-shebang. And we’re all familiar with the Cabinet War Rooms underneath London (and if you weren’t, you probably saw Skyfall so you actually are) – but the idea of a second city, a subterranean maze, is always going to be infinitely fascinating and will provide for pretty awesome set pieces (see: Reliquary, Skyfall, Kraken, etc) and Harris puts it to good use here. The claustrophobic darkness, pinged by strange pieces of history, is scary enough without something chasing you or shooting at you – so the pulse gets a-racing.
And when Nick first finds the story of the 1983 war game and reads a piece of ‘diary’ that was left behind… well, I won’t give it away except to say that I had the same reaction as Nick: “Wait a minute, that… that didn’t happen, right?” Creepy stuff.
The rest of the novel follows a relatively expected general path, albeit through a new lens. The wide-reaching horror of some of Nick’s discoveries and the ultimate end-game might seem, at first, to be a little far-fetched (the whole “government conspiracy” thing can feel that way) but you have to take a step back and realize that it’s not out of the question that something like this might in fact happen. It’s not unheard of to discover some quietly-hushed-up atrocity, cock-up, whatever – and so it’s not out of the question that our own Nick Belsey could be the guy to, having only wanted to impress a girl, blow the whole thing wide open.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A deeply enjoyable mystery with a not-always-so-likable protagonist. Nick Belsey struck me as memorable in The Hollow Man and Oliver Harris followed up with a great sequel, one that even has the added benefit of educating the reader along the way. Oh, I wouldn’t expect to be able to walk behind that Costa and get into the tunnels… but they’re down there, below London, whether we see them or not. And as for Belsey’s non-traditional methods, well, when they’re so damn enjoyable, who cares?