First Response - Stephen Leather

First Response - Stephen Leather *

Stephen Leather's latest novel comes at a time of heightened tensions following the terrorist attacks in Paris. Surely it's only a matter of time before something similar happens in London? Leather has come up with a worst-case scenario in First Response that ought to be a nightmare for anyone in the UK to read, but particularly anyone living or working in London. Nine suicide bombers have taken hostages in various locations across the city demanding the release of six ISIS prisoners from Belmarsh high security prison. It's almost inconceivable then, given that kind of situation and real-life parallels, that the novel could be anything but tense and frightening, but somehow Leather manages to completely mishandle it at every step.

First of all, there are doubts about the likelihood of the situation described here. It's surely stretching credibility to believe that nine suicide bombers could slip under the radar of the security forces and almost simultaneously set themselves up in positions that could cause the maximum distruption and casualties in nine locations in London. Or so you would like to think. Leather however does find a way to explain this situation. Somehow, the terrorists have managed to recruit 'cleanskins', Muslims with no previous indication of radicalisation that would attract the attention and surveillance of the authorities. One of them is even a police officer who had been working undercover.

One by one, the jihadists wearing bomb belts walk into public places - a post office in Fulham, a shopping centre in Wandsworth, a church in Brixton, even into an infants school - and handcuff themselves to the nearest person. The hostages are allowed to take photos and even encouraged to put them up on social media, spreading the terror, putting the demands of the terrorists out there that their six colleagues must be released from prison and put on a flight out of the country. Unless their demands are met by 6:00pm the same day, all the nine bombs will be detonated. While it might be possible then to get nine suicide bombers into those positions before the authorities have time to act, the question however is why would ISIS do this? This is surely not their usual method of spreading fear through terrorism?

First Response then squanders all the opportunities afforded it to explore how a potential terrorist attack situation might play out, how the public would react or how the media, the emergency services, the government and the security forces might respond. This is probably not the kind of situation that they are prepared for, and for good reason. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense and it's very unlikely that anything like this would happen in this way. Even if we were to put aside the idea of what the reader might hope that First Response would examine however, and simply accept the ISIS terrorists as just a contemporary topical way to explore a siege/hostage situation, Leather's novel still remains unconvincing. What is worse however, is that it lacks the kind of escalating tension that is necessary. When you consider the kind of situation that the author has developed here, that's unforgivable.

Characterisation in First Response is stock, practically to the point of caricature and bordering on racist. Each of the bombers are described as brown-skinned, sweaty and wearing cheap overcoats, "straggly beard and all" in a way that conforms to "the racist stereotype of a suicide bomber". It doesn't stop Leather from using this stereotype though or from making references to at least one of them being involved in a group that grooms young white girls for sex. The hostages are no better defined, one of them even being suicidal on account of her family recently having been killed in a car accident by an Asian man, and quite happy to have her captor push the trigger. It's appallingly lazy characterisation that offers no depth or insight into how real people might behave or react in a similar situation. The conversations and interaction between them is unrealistic and incredibly banal.

There is some exploration of the procedural elements of how the authorities would respond and interact with the terrorists, and some indication of how vulnerable and thin on the ground that would leave Response Teams. This would be worrying should a hostage situation for political demands ever take place between the authorities and ISIS, but it's hard to see anything like this ever playing out. Surprisingly, none of the top command in First Response stop to think this through either and remain baffled, powerless and basically incompetent right through to the incredibly cursory examination of the events at the conclusion, where it even has to be conveniently explained to them. There is at least some incentive to keep reading as the deadline approaches, with the expectation of some surprising twist or revelation at the end. The suggestion that some might exploit the fear of ISIS for their own means is unrealistic and in questionable taste, but it's also precisely what Leather does here himself in First Response.

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First Response by Stephen Leather is published by Hodder and Stoughton on 29 February 2016

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