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Chris Morgan Jones’s An Agent of Deceit was recently longlisted for the CWA’s Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award for 2011 and this first novel has been compared to the work of Le Carré. The author certainly writes about what he knows as his background includes working for the world’s largest (private) intelligence agency, Kroll. There, he advised governments, banks, hedge funds, mining companies and Russian oligarchs. An Agent of Deceit is firmly built on a plot concerning the last in that list: the oligarch. But with money laundering woven into every corner of the novel, his experience of banks and hedge funds has not been written off. Taking in London, Moscow and Berlin, it’s ‘follow the money’ time.
Journalist Ben Webster went through an enormous tragedy ten years ago when his investigation into a corrupt business in Kazakhstan was scuppered. He moved on and resurfaced with a private London-based intelligence agency. When a client, angry at a thwarted business deal, requests his services to expose the illegal business dealings of oligarch Konstantin Malin, Webster has more than a professional interest because of that decade-old experience. To get at Malin, Webster concentrates on lawyer Richard Lock, the man who designed and efficiently runs Malin’s engine of money laundering, moving proceeds and hiding the trail through layer upon layer of companies across the globe. In effect, Lock is a backroom boy, but due to design Lock is a front man appearing to the world as the richest foreign investor in Russia. However, Lock is tiring of his world, one in which he found himself continually sucked into further, and now he finds himself squeezed with the pressure of a light shining on him demanding that he explain his apparent wealth. If possible, Lock would like nothing better than to turn back the clock…
Refreshingly, Morgan Jones presents a thriller that is not built from blocks of black and white but from various shades of grey. The most developed character is that of the ever-grey Lock, and he is neither villain nor victim but both, where his role meant he was forced to escalate his involvement with no option to walk away. He has had to continue to protect those he loves and he wants to be with them. We all expect the support of our employers, but in the real law-abiding world we don’t expect to live in fear of our employers on a day to day basis as is Lock’s hell. Thus, in Lock we have a character with whom we can sympathise, but at the same time we are abhorred by all he stands for. Having said that, and perhaps because of this focus, the novel has a sense of loss of pace where the principal of this crime, Malin, does not really feature until close to the end.
Years ago, Reg Gadney created a series around protagonist Alan Rosslyn who started as a Customs & Excise officer but who moved into private intelligence agency work as we approached the new millennium. This started out excellently but became increasingly ludicrous in its plots centred on the agency. There is no such feel with An Agent of Deceit which has credibility and a wonderful contemporary plot exploring the murky dealings of an oligarch. It’s good to see a plot involving money laundering where people may only think of the financial implications; but behind it, it leaves many, many victims in its wake.
This is a very solid debut from Morgan Jones and one in which he achieves a rare thing: making the machinations of the backroom boys intriguing. And on this outing, I suspect his further novels will be even better.