A Good Day to Die
Published by Bantam Press (UK)
He Ain't No Saint
Reviewed by Ali Karim
It's not common for crime novelists to willingly set aside popular protagonists -- especially those who show promise as series stars -- and instead write fiction in which others take the lead. But that's exactly what the UK's Simon Kernick chose to do. After witnessing the publication of his first book, The Business of Dying (one of January Magazine's favorite works of 2002), he turned his attention away from Dying's splendidly flawed and amoral headliner, Detective Sergeant Dennis Milne, and penned a pair of novels -- The Murder Exchange (reviewed in "The Rap Sheet," 7-8/03) and The Crime Trade ("RS" 6/04) -- that focused on a London police detective named John Gallan. Only now, in his fourth book, the revenge thriller A Good Day to Die, does Kernick resurrect Milne, thrusting him into a landscape rampant with low-life hoodlums, underworld overlords and corrupt habitués of the upper echelons of society, all fighting to survive in the cracks and bullet holes that riddle modern society.
The wait to see Milne again was certainly worth it, for Good Day is a deliciously complex suspenser. Its Ian Flemingesque title and cover design are curiously appropriate, given the globe-trotting air, unscrupulous twists and internal conflicts delivered here -- all of which would be most familiar to literary spy James Bond.
Those who read The Business of Dying will likely remember it as a fast-paced, hip narrative firmly rooted in gangland North London. It featured both DS Milne and Asif Malik, his Asian partner in Islington CID, who were sent out to investigate the gruesome murder of teenage prostitute Miriam Fox. Despite the prevailing darkness of his psyche, and his willingness to perform as a hit man on the side, Milne maintains a code of behavior (à la Spenser) that passes for an ethical foundation. As he explains in Good Day:
... I'm no cold-blooded murderer. I've done jobs before ... Jobs where I've had to end the lives of people who deserved it. Drug dealers; child molesters; the worst kind of criminals. They weren't many in number, and they never interfered with the work I did as a detective in London's Metropolitan Police, so I never thought that I was doing much wrong. However, all that changed three years ago, when I made a mistake and shot some men I was told were bad guys, but who were actually anything but. That's what I mean about taking things at face value. People lie. They also double-cross, even the ones you're meant to trust.
Which is why, at the end of The Business of Dying, Milne "ended up on the run, with the police, Interpol and God knows who else after my blood." He made it as far as the Philippines, where -- under the nom de plume Marcus "Mick" Kane -- he has gone into the diving-supply trade with a former informant, Tomboy Darke, and now hides out on Mindoro Island. But business is damnably slow under the southeastern sun, so Milne/Kane, falling back on old habits, injects a bit of extra cash into the dive-shop accounts by working part-time as a hit man for London criminal overlord Les Pope, an underworld contact of Darke's.
Milne's initial target is Richard Blacklip, a British pedophile on the run. (It seems that one of Blacklip's victims is willing to pay for his assassination -- no surprise there.) Next, Pope assigns our man to do away with Billy Warren, another criminal fleeing justice back in the United Kingdom. However, Warren isn't exactly the man he claims to be. Milne has a history with this guy, dating back to when Warren was known by London's Criminal Investigations Division as "Slippery Billy" West, a soldier turned criminal and killer. Confronting Slippery, revealing to him Pope's plan to make him "disappear off the face of the earth," Milne discovers that West's escape to the Philippines came in the wake of his involvement in murdering a pair of coppers from the Serious Crimes Unit: Detective Inspector Jason Khan and his partner, Detective Chief Inspector Asif Malik (who, since The Business of Dying, has had roles both in The Murder Exchange and The Crime Trade).
Milne takes this news of Slippery slaying Malik hard:
[Malik had] always struck me as a man who was going places. He was hard-working, bright and, most importantly of all, decent. Most coppers are decent people underneath it all, but some -- myself included -- get more cynical as the years go by and the crime rate keeps rising. I'd once believed in what I was doing, in my ability, as a police officer working within the strict frameworks the law sets, to change things and deliver justice to the people who needed it. But time, and the growing realization that what I was delivering was nothing more than a sticking plaster for a gaping wound, had corrupted me to the point where both my reputation and my conscience were now well beyond repair.
He's no less disturbed to learn that Les Pope had a significant hand in Malik's demise. So, before you can say "The World's Favorite Airline" -- and despite the inconvenient fact that Dennis Milne remains a wanted man in his home country -- Kernick's protagonist boards the first plane smoking off to London. His mission: to figure out why Malik and Khan were gunned down in a restaurant, and to avenge his old friend's death. Even if that means squaring off against the powerful, merciless Pope.
But then Milne's troubles really begin.
Kernick's storytelling style has grown smoother since he debuted as a novelist. His dialogue is sharper and his turns of phrase tighter. Good Day's narrative strength lies in the genial tone of Milne's first-person voice. We are given disturbing glimpses into the sinister hearts and murky morality of people who, while they may inhabit the edges of our world, rule what goes on elsewhere with a ruthlessness that makes Milne's unscrupulous activities look like cause to commend him to sainthood. Kernick, like myriad other contemporary British writers, ploughs the furrow created by Golden Age veterans such as Alistair MacLean, Geoffrey Household, Leslie Charteris, Eric Ambler and, of course, Fleming, all of whom had a preference for sending dodgy heroes into campaigns for justice. Dennis Milne follows that tradition with zest. He's a man tough enough for his times.
Arriving once more in London, Milne quickly settles back into "the life." Holing up in a fleabag hotel, he commences his pursuit of the truth behind Asif Malik's murder. Was it connected to his police work? Or could the killer have been one of Malik's enemies among organized-crime figures? A series of misadventures follow, as Milne knocks elbows with some pretty profound scoundrels and begins to wonder about the fabric of his own reality. Lacking friends, unable to use his previous contacts in the British capital, and short of help from others, the former detective sergeant turns eventually for assistance to newspaper reporter Emma Neilson. Short, in her early 20s, with "elfin features and a fine head of curly reddish-blonde hair that fell down her shoulders with the casual finesse of a fashion ad," Emma is convinced there's more to the Malik and Khan killings than meets the eye. Thus joined by common purpose, she and the elder Milne soon find themselves crawling beneath the rocks of the underworld. And from the stresses of their predicament, they form a physical bond. But the cynical ex-cop senses something amiss as he and Emma uncover a conspiracy that leads right to the pillars of influence -- and turns this taut thriller back upon itself.
In case this isn't obvious by now, the theme of A Good Day to Die is morality -- the application and abuse of power, and the decision to do good even in a world that doesn't always reward probity. That the mercenary Dennis Milne starts out in this tale by committing two cold-blooded homicides, yet winds up at the close looking like a champ, tells readers much about the variety of yarn from which Kernick prefers to spin his stories. As a novel of raw urban realism, hard-charging action and ever-escalating stakes, Good Day is second to none. As an examination, within a fictional framework, of moral choices and principles of honor, this novel -- certainly Simon Kernick's best to date -- may pose more questions than it answers. But during the hours it takes to experience Milne's rites of retribution, you are offered the extraordinary chance to see things through the eyes of someone for whom the decision to act in the right is a conscious and often troubling one. For my money, that opportunity is worth the price of admission.
Reviewing A Good Day to Die, author Laura Lippman, whose own fiction (In Big Trouble, Every Secret Thing, To the Power of Three) regularly gazes into the fissures of our delicately ordered culture, called this book "a fast-paced yet deeply moral thriller with a thoughtful protagonist who never mistakes himself for a hero." I must humbly disagree, for Dennis Milne seems very much the hero here, if a seriously flawed example of the breed. But then, in Kernick's world, the line between villain and champion is so thin as to be almost invisible, like a spider's thread. | July 2005
Ali Karim is an industrial chemist, freelance journalist and book reviewer living in England. In addition to being a contributing editor of January Magazine, he's also the assistant editor of the e-zine Shots and writes for both Deadly Pleasures and Crime Spree. An associate member of the British Crime Writers Association and the International Thriller Writers Association, Karim is currently working on a novel.