Frank Westworth, First Contract

A book review for Mystery Thriller Week

Following the shooting dead of four Iraqi prisoners during the Gulf war, Sergeant J J Stoner finds himself being interviewed by “the Hard Man”, a figure without military rank but with an evident connection to some branch of the Security Services. Stoner will be honourably but immediately discharged from the army and will in future be expected to kill people on the instructions of the Hard Man. Cold-blooded killers who, even if inclined to ask too many questions, won’t insist on an answer are not that easy to find, even in a war zone, it appears. The kernel of this long short story is made up of a riddling and entertaining conversation between the Hard Man and Stoner. Eventually, Stoner is sent to Ireland, where he is required to assassinate a target who appears to be a Republican leader. Initially, at least, things don’t go exactly according to plan …

Stoner is someone who will kill without having to know why. The mindset of such a person and the atmosphere in which he works is handled well. From this reader’s point of view, however, a story about an assassination which does not give a reason for the killing is inevitably lacking something fundamantal. An epilogue in which, long after the event, Stoner discovered the unexpected motive for his actions, might have been more satisfactory. Stoner also features in Westworth’s trilogy of novels, starting with A Last Act of Charity. I suspect that the character is a better fit for the longer form — here, he seems a little cramped.

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