Secrets of the Dead by Tom Harper

A timeslip thriller, alternating between the high-wire politics of the late-Roman empire, and the labyrinthine violence of the present-day Balkans.
Those are Tom Harper’s own words, and if you want to read more, scroll down to September 19th. Very tantalising. But if I had only read the blurb on the back of the Arrow paperback, its clichés would have put it straight back on the shelf. The Kindle summary is better, but it too morphs into cliché: ‘someone wants to suppress a secret, one that has been kept hidden for centuries’. Duh?
Allow me a wee rant. What publishers seem to want is the ‘fast follower’ – a term much bandied in management seminars. The risk and the investment have been made by someone else, and the fast follower scrambles aboard a bandwagon that’s already rolling. So your book will be marketed as if it was by the guy who’s already made the headlines, whether it bears any resemblance or not. And sure, it may attract the reader who wants more of the same – but not the reader who’s looking for something different. So Arrow markets Tom Harper as ‘in the tradition of the Da Vinci Code’ and alienates anyone who is Dan Brown-intolerant. Which is a pity, because Harper is full of good stuff. It may also be a daft ploy on behalf of Arrow, because when I checked out Amazon’s ‘readers who bought this also bought…’ I found a shed-load of long-buried secrets and nary a trace of the evil Brownstuff. Clearly Tom’s readers are more discerning.
‘Some secrets should stay buried forever’ says the cover, and being of a nasty suspicious cast of mind, I’m inclined to agree. Certainly many of the secrets of this genre won’t stand up to much daylight. But Tom Harper’s choice of terrain here is very clever. Not for nothing do we still use the term ‘byzantine’ to sum up bottomless political tangles, and so if we haven’t ‘unravelled’ the secret by the time we get to the end, it really doesn’t matter. Most of the characters don’t know the half of it either. Sometimes all you need to hang on to is the certainty that everyone’s plotting against everyone else – then sit back and enjoy the ride. When a large part of a novel is set in Constantinople, and three of its historical characters are called Constantine, Constansius and Constantiana, it’s good to know your author can keep his head.

Heaven knows what expert historians would make of it all: they do tend to be party-poopers. What makes Tom Harper at least seem so trustworthy is his imaginative immersion. The ancient half of the plot takes off at the time when Constantine has just ruled that Christianity should be the official religion of the Roman empire. But Valerius, who is investigating the murder of the emperor’s biographer, remains a sceptic: ‘Who’d reject a god who gives you a day off once a week?’ Deft little touches like that blow away centuries of dust.

For anyone who wants to learn the craft, an author’s Acknowledgements are often the real clue to the treasure. I imagined Tom Harper as the guy behind the wheel of a UN Stratocruiser, but not a bit of it. ‘Captain Daniel Murphy showed me round Camp Bondsteel…My sister told me about the Foreign Office…’ So how does he make it sound so convincing? Not for the first time, less is more: ‘pictures of the missing flapped from a fence. Some …looked blank, so that only if you looked carefully did you see the faded traces of the photographs….A row of ghosts.’

This light touch is classy. A more plonking tale would over-urge the parallels between a then and now both set ‘halfway between east and west…the hinge of history.’ Here the extra dimension is all the better for being no more than faintly sketched. When Abby waits for her contact to turn up, on the battlements of Belgrade, she looks at the ’overwhelming forest’ and thinks of ‘a Roman sentry standing there at the end of the world…and wondering what might stir within it.’ All too recently modern Serbia was one of the dark places of the world.

Abby makes a good heroine: experienced and professional, but with a realistic pain-threshold and without super-human skills in either IT or martial arts. There’s not much
sex in Secrets of the Dead and very little violence – though there’s oodles of menace. Harper knows when not to over-egg an already rich pudding. The body-count is hard to compute, since one character in each plot dies twice, which was asking a leetle too much from this reader – though Harper himself throws in the big pinch of salt. But in the main we get good old-fashioned deaths from a blow to the head with a blunt marble bust, gun shots or sword thrusts: none of that over-ingenious Nesbo-style nonsense.

This is a thoughtful, intelligent thriller, and – oh, joy of joys! – impeccably written. My only quibble would be the supposed hero’s attempted jokes – but perhaps it’s because they’re so thumping that we first suspect he’s not all he seems…I shall certainly be loading more Harper onto my Kindle for some up-coming long-haul.

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