Title: The Fourth Courier
Author: Timothy Jay Smith
“His wedding ring is missing.” Jay remarked, noticing the paler band on the man’s already pale fingers. Then he saw something else: a pronounced bump next to the man’s little finger. He turned the hand to look at it and pressed it. It felt like the writer’s bump he’d had through high school, before he switched to an electric typewriter in college. He showed it Kulski. “What would cause a bump like that?” The detective shrugged. “I don’t know.””
The Fourth Courier is a thriller novel set in the 1990s in Warsaw, Poland. From the first page, Smith throws the reader into the midst of an investigation into some grisly murders (whose victims turn out to have been smuggling nuclear materials) taking place in the area. Jay Porter, an FBI agent who has been asked to help with the investigation begins to discover the details of the crimes, and when a physicist who has designed a portable atomic bomb goes missing, Porter and the police investigating have a race against time to find him. But will they find him and the bomb before the wrong people get hold of it and potential detonate it, killing hoards of innocent people?
Right from the beginning, this book was gripping; Smith’s writing, and his clear level of research and detail made this book so plausible and thrilling. I loved how much Polish and Russian he included in the book which added to the authenticity and, although I did struggle to keep up a little, I do appreciate how realistic it made the novel. I also think there was a good level of cultural/historical references which kept it entrenched in the Soviet era, while not bogging down the reader with too much information.
I liked that there were a lot of characters, but I have to admit, it did become a little jarring, just because I was having to remind myself about who everyone was. I liked how the array of characters kept the pace, but I found it difficult to keep track of them all, especially when a lot of them were secondary and not too relevant to the overall plot. However, maybe I’m just not the right person to enjoy it, and I’m sure there are people who like novels that busy! I also particularly enjoyed the characters Jay and Sergej – Jay was likeable which made me like the book more and Sergej was clearly intelligent, but also conflicted which made him interesting. The head of the Yugoslavia Secret Services, Drako Mladic, was also an intriguing character; seemingly just a megalomanic, as the plot progressed it became clearer that he had his weaknesses, and it was interesting to see him succumb to them.
All in all there were thirty six chapters in this relatively short book which I thought was great because it broke up the plot and helped keep pace. The number of chapters also helped the narrative jump around a lot which also helped keep the pace throughout, which again made this thriller gripping from beginning to end. I do think that some of the writing was a little politically charged which not everyone might enjoy, but again, it added to the authenticity of the location and time.
As thriller plots go, I thought this one was original enough while also keeping a comfortable and familiar thriller-plot-arc. There were a good few unexpected moments, and enough killings/mysteries/trysts to keep it interesting. Smith’s writing was succinct, refreshing, and daring in the way that he wasn’t willing to sugar coat any of the more gruesome or seductive parts of the plot. Overall, this was a great thriller, with a good plot, and some gripping writing – would definitely recommend.