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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

The Second Assasin

Reviewed: May 7, 2003
By: Christopher Hyde
Publisher: Onyx Fiction/Penguin
394 Pages, $9.99

It’s difficult to find out a lot about the elusive Mr. Hyde. He’s two years older than I am. He writes screenplays as well as novels. He is mourned by the horror/thriller community as someone who used to write in their genre but now sticks pretty much to the mainstream and you can find material by him listed under the science fiction, horror, thriller, mystery and historical categories.

All this would indicate that Hyde has dabbled in a lot of areas since the The Wave (ecological thriller) and The Icarus Agenda (spy thriller). He has wandered into Peter Straub territory (Jericho Falls) and hobnobbed with Stephen King (Whisperland). In his masterful Hard Target  he wrote a assassination novel which, at the same time, managed to be a commentary on such notable books as Three Days of the Condor and The Day of the Jackal.

Lately, he’s been dabbling in the historical thriller business. Cover copy on this book compares him to the latest BIG THING, Caleb Carr, but really these books have inhabited the realms of Jack Higgins and Ken Lafolet, the historical wartime thriller with a twist. Those two wander back and forth from the present to the past, and Hyde has done all of that so far during his career.

In The Second Assassin the time is 1939. The event is the Royal Tour of that year, the one that so many Canadians recalled so fondly during the Queen Mother’s birthday a couple of years ago. She wouldn’t have been terribly happy with this book had she seen it, for it portrays neither her nor her husband, the reluctant monarch, in a particularly flattering light. In those scenes where they appear they are mediocre folk well out of their depth at playing the parts to which fate has assigned them.

King George and Queen Elizabeth (known to him fondly as “Buffy” I was amused to learn) are not the central characters in this game of hide and seek. They appear to be the targets, though that is by no means certain as the book’s multiple plotlines are woven by the author.

By turns we dip into the lives and adventures of the following individuals, many of whom cross each other’s paths from time to time.

London detective Thomas Barry is on an ill-favoured assignment to pursue IRA hitman Sean Russell, who is rumoured to have designs on the Royals. While he is at first accompanied by a chap from military intelligence, he is later left to flap in the breeze by himself. Barry is a decent fellow with a good mind, but he is inexperienced in the ways of love and intrigue, and his instincts sometimes play him false.

Jane Todd is a modern American woman, a freelance photojournalist in a man’s world, making it by being just slightly better than one of the boys. Her dogged pursuit of a story nearly gets her killed, yet she dares much and her participation is essential to the story’s climax.

John Bone, an IRA assassin gone cosmopolitan freelance operative, is the central individual villain of the piece. Here Hyde pays homage to Frederick Forsythe, who pioneered this genre with his aforementioned Day of the Jackal. Bone is that sort of a fellow, a meticulous planner with a heart of stone, who has already decided that this is his last big score, but also possessed of enough pride to want to see a job through. We spend a good chunk of the book with him and he is fascinating - like a dangerous creature you just have to watch.

Notice I used the word ‘individual” when describing Bone as a villain. The real villains of the piece can be found in the old boys’ cabal which has united to keep President Roosevelt from assisting the British and dragging the USA into entering the Second World War. These people include key members of Roosevelt’s cabinet, higher-ups in the Democratic Party, members of the organized crime cartels that J. Edgar Hoover still refused to believe existed, and such multi-connected individuals as Joseph Kennedy.

Hyde’s narrative shuffles amongst all these people effortlessly and, unlike some of his British competition in this genre, manages to make the reader feel equally at home in Great Britain, the United States or Canada.

For backdrop to all of this we have the 1939 Royal Tour and the New York World’s Fair where much of the denouement takes place. 

The Second Assassin is a clever page turner of a book that proved just the thing for my cross-country flights in March. It’s the second time Hyde’s visited this particular territory and if he does again I’d want to read that one too.

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