Book review: Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton
Three Hours - Rosamund Lupton
It's every parent's worst nightmare - only doubled; a school is under attack by one or more armed killers and the fear is that it's part of a terror attack, even if there's unlikely to be any difference in the resulting carnage. What is worse in the case that Rosamund Lupton develops in Three Hours is that this attack on Cliff Heights School in Somerset doesn't appear to be following the expected pattern of such attacks, but rather seems to have a plan of its own that is difficult to identify. Worst of all, the attack is taking place in real-time, with the teachers and pupils holed-up under siege.
Rosamund Lupton handles the growing tension and horrifying progression of the terror attack well. There's the initial confusion, a bomb going off in the woods, the head teacher shot by a masked gunman, the implementation of the emergency drill eventually put into practice. Some pupils are able to retreat to the security of the school theatre where they are rehearsing a production of Macbeth, others barricade themselves into the library with the wounded head teacher, the younger children escorted to a safe place. But as the attackers stall before their next move, there's a sense that the drill procedures might be playing into their hands and they are just biding time.
Who is behind the attack and what exactly their plan is keeps the tension going for a while, and while they sit out the siege, it gives the police and counter-terrorism units not only a surprising amount of time to work out what is going on. You might be glad to find that the police are completely in charge and competent in how they enact emergency procedures, but there are unrealistically a little too quick to break the heavy encryption on the release of time-managed messages and warnings while it is still going on, but again there is a suspicion that it's a little too easy and that they are just playing into the hands of whatever scheme the attackers have in mind.
One interesting feature of the modern terrorist siege that Lupton picks up on is the role that live 24-hour news channels, mobile phones and social media can play. Not only can the terrorists strike fear into the wider public by getting their message out much more quickly, but the flow of information works both ways, and if the armed attackers are watching TV or listening to the frantic messages and live interviews on the phone with children locked in rooms, they know exactly what the police are planning and what measures are being taken.
Taking such matters into consideration keeps up interest as much as the mystery of why armed attackers would target a liberal, progressive, open-minded and non-religious school. Lupton zeroes in also on a couple of significant pupils in immediate jeopardy, with their concerned parents going frantic outside. As a thriller Three Hours is undoubtedly tense and well-paced in its drama, tension and gradual revelations, but there is a sense that it is a little unrealistic, and it does seem a little academic and progressive-media-friendly, not least in how it counters the meanness of the attackers with the heroism of brave heroic young pupils, including those who continue with their dress-rehearsal of Daesh-inspired take on Macbeth, even as their school is under siege.
What Lupton really can't escape however, and what takes away some of the tension, is the tone of the concerned liberal parent who, despite developing a situation where their greatest fears are being realised, always operates with the underlying assumption that we can trust in the good guys to win out in the end. It's not that she side-steps the controversial political questions, in one case impressively taking to task the xenophobic UK tabloid press for their fearmongering and misrepresentation of ethnic minorities - but her counter-argument that the highly-professional rapid-reaction code-cracking security services will prevail, operating freely, unburdened by political pressures or austerity funding cuts, feels somewhat naive. One can only hope that she is right, but should a similar circumstance occur, I suspect that it could turn out a lot worse than this.