Thanks to satellite imagery and an ISIS group leaving their phones on a little too long after a massacre in a Syrian village, MI6 has been able to track, and identify, at least by voice, the leader of the terrorist cell, whom they call Black Cube. They have established he and his sidekicks are in Greece, presumably on their way to northern Europe, and some new attack. But there is a witness to the Syrian slaughter, a 13 year old boy who is also in Greece, having survived a boat wreck when a dolphin saved him and a baby he was carrying. MI6 want to get to the boy, code-named Firefly, before ISIS do, and they approach a former agent, Luc Sampson, Arabic speaking of Lebanese extraction, who’s now ‘finding people’ for a private intelligence company.
Firefly is Henry Porter’s sixth thriller, but the first since 2009’s The Dying Light; you can read my review of that here. That was a deeply layered dissection of Britain’s burgeoning surveillance state; this one is a more straightforward book, a chase story, but one told from two points of view. As you follow Sampson’s pursuit of Firefly, you’re also drawn into Firefly’s own pursuit, of the safety of Germany, which is threatened by the killers pursuing him. And though this might sound high-concept and plot-driven, what makes the book work is the way it treats its characters.
Sampson is the kind of resourceful but modest hero British agents are supposed to be, but what makes
the story interesting is the way he has to fight past bureaucratic interference, not least from MI6 itself. But Firefly, or Naji, to give him his name, is every bit as resourceful as Sampson, with a lot less to work with, and of course, with the handicap of being only 13.
Porter is a journalist by trade, and one of the very best to turn to thriller writing since Gerald Seymour wrote Harry’s Game. As with Seymour, it is the realism of the background details, the intelligence procedures, the international agencies and their functioning, the in-fighting among government branches, and the chaos on the ground that really drives the story. And as we follow Najo from Turkey to Lesbos and through the Balkans, the realism of that background helps brings the characters to the fore; not just our two protagonists but a supporting cast both threatening and appealing.
In 2008, Porter published a young people’s fantasy novel, The Master Of The Broken Chairs. It’s plain from Firefly that he has the ability to create not only a convincing child hero, but to convey even more convincingly the point of view of that child forced to grow up rapidly, and in the worst possible circumstances. After that, a secret agent with a heart of gold or a beautiful English-educated Greek child psychologist in the refugee camps are pieces of cake.
Firefly by Henry Porter
Quercus £14.99 ISBN 078178470491
This review first appeared at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets