Book review: Bloodland by Alan Glynn

Bloodland
by Alan Glynn
Faber & Faber, 2011.

The “conspiracy thriller” is a genre with very few excellent examples and very many substandard ones. Bloodland is of the best. Its momentum is provided by the connectivity of some very small and apparently random dots, to the point where a US presidency and global corporate “imperialism” are directly affected. Although clearly written with an eye on the movie, it is none the worse for that.

The main novel opens in Ireland with Jimmy Gilroy, an inexperienced, young and unemployed journalist agreeing to write a book about a “celebrity” (by the modern definition), Susie Monaghan, simply because the advance will allow him to pay the rent for a few more months. He’s unhappy about his assignment because his father was a fine journalist and Jimmy wants to follow in his footsteps. Nevertheless, he begins by researching the final chapter, about Susie’s death in a helicopter accident.

On the day that Jimmy has an appointment with the dead woman’s sister, he receives a call from Phil Sweeney, an old PR contact of his father’s, who asks him not to write the book, but won’t tell him why. Puzzled, Jimmy meets the sister as arranged – he assumes she will be against the idea of the book, but to his surprise she is very much in favour of it, mainly because she feels that the accident was not properly investigated at the time and she thinks Jimmy’s research will reveal the cause. Keen to continue with this line, Jimmy is then offered a much better deal via Sweeney: to write a ghosted autobiography of the recently retired Taioseach, Larry Bolgar.

Despite his liking for the sister, Jimmy does not waste much time ditching the Susie book and going to see Bolgar, who is a man fighting his own demons — all of Glynn’s male characters have traumatic interior lives, fighting insecurity, fathers (or father-figures) and addiction of one sort or another. What a drunk Bolgar reveals to Jimmy during their first interview makes Jimmy’s head reel, and makes the reader realise that the book is about something else completely than its ostensible subject.

Another plotline involves Dave Conway, who knew Susie and most of those with her on her final weekend. His company owns Tara Meadows, a massive new development of hotels, shops and apartments that is now abandoned, a home for tramps. Conway is desperately trying to find new investors amid a crashed Irish economy, as his family life disintegrates. He sees a brief item on the TV news about a body that has been found in a wood by a man walking his dog, a report that causes Conway to panic.

The geographical scope of the book expands, leading to Italy, London, the Congo and finally to the United States for the dramatic climax. Jimmy only sees part of the picture, of course: from the start the reader has known about a visit by a US senator to the Congo which ends in tragedy, and witnesses the damage-limitation exercise that follows – with its inevitable weaknesses.

The full extent of the connection between these events, partially but not completely known to the reader, depends on Jimmy. Will he be tenacious and bright enough to follow all his leads through, as they point to ever-more amazing implications? I did doubt it at first, when he, a journalist, is researching an Italian UN official and does not know how easy it is to translate documents instantly on the web, going to various lengths to find someone who can tell him what they mean – but this is the only stumble I came across in a very assured plot-build-up.

Most conspiracy thrillers fail by over-reaching themselves, hence lurching into incredibility. This is certainly not the case here. Much of what is revealed depends on coincidence – certain people cracking up at convenient times, or someone deciding to spill some beans at the exact time the right person is there to hear them, and so on. But this element is not overdone, and indeed is a clever analysis of how apparently small decisions made by low-level people in an organisation for what seem at the time to be perfectly good reasons, in fact come back in spades later on down the line.

Bloodland is an immensely exciting book, which works because the author never forgets the human condition. His portrayal of a mine in the Congo is truly upsetting, not in a gratuitous sense but in the sense of providing a snapshot for the reader to understand how children’s lives are completely ruined by the inevitable combination of corruption, greed and exploitation in these sad countries and by those who do business with their leaders.

The novel is told mostly via the device of sharing with the reader the thoughts of the main characters (all male) as their inner worlds, and gradually their outer ones, disintegrate. Will it all come out, or will Jimmy allow himself to be diverted? How will he overcome his lack of resources and his unemployed status to convince anyone of what he knows but cannot prove? Will someone stop him before he can deliver? I can only urge you to read this book to find out.

I purchased my copy of this book.

Other reviews of Bloodland: Euro Crime (Terry Halligan), Reviewing the Evidence (Yvonne Klein), Shots (Ali Karim), View from the Blue House and, a lone negative review, The Irish Independent.

My Euro Crime review of the author’s previous book, Winterland. (Bloodland is not a sequel to Winterland, but a couple of the characters appear in both novels.)

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14 thoughts on “Book review: Bloodland by Alan Glynn

  1. Is it a long book? There seems to be quite a lot going on – which one of the problems I find with political thrillers. I mentioned in a recent post on Margot’s blog that I often prefer to watch films in the genre where the plot lines are condensed. I enjoyed ‘The Killing’ for example but it was far too long for me.
    I’m reading a huge book at the moment. Robert Lydon’s ‘Hawk Quest’ a historical thriller. MY ARC is 650 pages long. But it’s bearable, in fact enjoyable, because there is only one plot line.

    • It isn’t very long, Sarah, an average length I’d say (maybe 300 pages)? I bought a large-format paperback but the print is quite large too. It certainly doesn’t feel like a long book if that’s any help. And I think that because (I guess) the author is writing the book with a view to the film (his earliest book has been made into a US movie) it is quite directly presented so easy to follow what’s going on.

  2. I saw this, read the blurb and decided not to buy it largely because of the conspiracy element. But since I totally trust your opinion, I may have to give this one a go. Thanks!

  3. I think I’ll read this one soon, and I agree with Sarah: I watch more conspiracy thrillers than I read.

  4. Maxine – Thanks for an excellent review. You’re quite right that lots of conspiracy thrillers fail; it’s actually one reason I generally don’t read a lot of them. A few, though, are good and Glynn certainly has a lot of talent. I had to smile at your comment that there’s an eye to the movie in this one. My guess is that there will be a film…

  5. Maxine – Years and years ago I enjoyed the early Ludlum books. He had a knack of creating contemporary conspiracies. How would you compare Glynn to Ludlum?

    • I read a couple of Ludlum books, Bill, and my memory is that they were quite “action-filled”. I prefer Bloodland as it has a tight plot and relies on that rather than on people charging around blowing up things. But I could be being unfair to Ludlum as it is a good long while since I read them.

  6. This sounds very good. I have this on my TBR list along with Winterland. I will get to both this year. I wonder what happens to women characters in some of these thrillers, but would rather none appear than be stereotypically portrayed.

  7. Maxine, Thanks for your wonderful review of Bloodland. I very much appreciate it. But may I make just one comment? You say that the book was “clearly written with an eye on the movie”, and you’re not to only one to have said that. But really, this was not the case. If you start writing a novel thinking, hmmm, this’ll make a great movie – or if you write it with a calculated eye on any specific idea of a market at all, in fact – the project will more than likely end in tears. It’s a complicated enough process as it is without bringing in such extraneous demands on what you’re trying to do. The stuff I write probably has a strong cinematic quality to it, but that’s something organic, I think, rather than calculated, and the result of a lifetime of watching movies. Cinema has had a huge influence on modern fiction, and that’s a perfectly natural process. My first novel, The Dark Fields – made into the film Limitless – was very pitchable to Hollywood, you could do it in four words (“Viagra for the brain”, or even three, “a pharmaceutical Faust”) but that wasn’t done consciously or deliberately on my part – though it certainly worked out very well for me. My subsequent two novels, Winterland and Bloodland, while maybe being “filmic” for the reader, are actually much harder to pitch for possible movie adaptation. Looking back, and if I’d really had an eye the movie, there are lots of choices I wouldn’t have made – too many major characters, for instance – but then I wouldn’t have written the novel I wanted to write. It’s an interesting subject, and maybe others think differently, but just thought I’d throw in my two cents. Anyway, thanks again for the wonderful and thoughtful review.

    • Thanks, Alan, I did very much enjoy the book. in view of your comment I should, therefore, have written that the book has “cinematic quality”. If a film of a book is capable of sticking to being a film of a book, rather than deviating into the usual Hollywood rubbish, Bloodland would be a very good movie, in my opinion.

  8. Corruption, collusion, conspiracy.

    Well, if you say it´s good, I know it must be, but right now I´ll stick to my slow-paced library books. I finally read about that dinosaur feather the other day, and I enjoyed it thoroughly even if it is about so much else than the deaths.

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