Reviewed by Rob Spence
We live in an age of fake news, propagated by politicians, celebrities and media organisations. Perhaps we always have – from the tricks of Elizabethan propaganda to the Zinoviev letter, there has always existed a tendency to invent, inflate and distort the truth, to present “alternative facts” as Kellyanne Conway characterised them. What is perhaps more a feature of our current, plugged-in, information-overloaded society is the growth of fake history: 9/11 was an inside job, the moon landings never happened, Osama Bin Laden is alive, and so on. It doesn’t take more than a few clicks in your browser to get to some seriously weird conspiracy theories and the people who propagate them.
In the latest outing for Sam Bourne’s Washington-based political operator Maggie Costello, the threat she faces is nothing less than the erasure of history, as the national libraries of the world, and people such as Holocaust survivors who can testify to historical truth, come under attack from a remote and faceless enemy. And having been brought in to combat this invisible antagonist, she of course finds herself in personal danger, too. What ensues is, to some degree, a classic airport-novel thriller narrative, as the heroine works frantically against the clock while her mysterious nemesis cranks up the pressure.
Thankfully, we are not in Dan Brown territory here. Sam Bourne is the pseudonym of Jonathan Freedland, otherwise employed as a highly regarded Guardian columnist and a sought-after commentator on politics and current affairs. The reader senses that the novel’s portrayal of the Washington corridors of power and the people who inhabit them is authentic, resting on the author’s years of experience as a political correspondent in DC. But perhaps thrillers are not primarily read for their authenticity: rather, a fast-paced narrative that provides the requisite plot-twists is what the target reader wants, and Bourne delivers on that score. The structure of the novel, which takes place over just five days, crams a lot of action into a tight time frame, producing a rising sense of urgency as we build to the inevitable climax.
The story is set in the present day, so we cannot avoid a few references to the current occupant of the White House, who is never named, but clearly identified. Similarly, one of Costello’s opponents is a very thinly veiled version of Steve Bannon, here named Crawford McNamara, against whom she battled in a previous book in this series. Here, Bourne has him expound at some length on the reasons behind the success of the current president, and, for want of a better phrase, it rings true:
“…truth is weak, Maggie. Its fatal flaw was that it relied on shame. Truth relied on shame. People were embarrassed to be caught in a lie. They were ashamed of it. Before him, no one wanted to do it. But then this extraordinary man came along and he couldn’t give a rat’s asshole. He doesn’t even blush. He feels no shame. He doesn’t care. And because he doesn’t care, you don’t need to care either. And, just like that, it’s over. Truth is dead.”
Reading this the day after the State of the Union address was sobering.
Bourne/Freedland has produced a novel which combines the standard tropes of the modern thriller with some perceptive social and political commentary. And, as he points out in his acknowledgements, much of what he writes is rooted in real events and current developments in technology. It’s scary.
Rob Spence’s home on the web is robspence.org.uk or find him on Twitter @spencro
Sam Bourne, To Kill The Truth (Quercus, 2019). 978 1 78747 491 8, 451pp., hardback.BUY from the Book Depository (affiliate link)