The author was born in the US, educated in Britain and served in the Black Watch and the Queens’ Own Highlanders. His colourful CV includes clearing landmines around the world and winning the Crime Writers’ Association’s Steel Dagger for A Loyal Spy.
In his latest thriller, Rock Creek Park, he seems to have used much of his service experience to create a pulsating story that flies around the world in the dangerous company of two protagonists – Washington detective Michael Freeman and a former London police bodyguard, Harriet ‘Harry’ Armstrong.
It begins as a police procedural, with an excellent opening as the body of a woman is discovered in snow-covered Rock Creek Park, Washington, during a late-night jog by Harry. Powerful political forces conspire against Freeman as he tries to discover why the victim, Katja, seems to have been connected with so many powerbrokers. When he sees a video of her describing herself as Unit 20105700 and that she was bred to be a prostitute, the narrative spins off into a new direction – as a genetic-horror thriller.
Freeman and Harry are both absorbing characters who are interesting and sympathetic. Freeman with his military background, career power plays and crumbling marriage, and Harry with her career marred by a controversial shooting incident, now living in Washington with her journalist husband.
The early phase of the narrative is captivating and textured, referencing a host of contemporary issues and events, from Obama’s healthcare battles to the Dunblane massacre and America’s anti-abortion extremists. When Harry gets enmeshed in the conspiracy by becoming the bodyguard of Eva, the niece of a Russian geneticist in the US, Rock Creek Park slips into a different gear. Like an ill-spliced genetic chimera, it’s not always a comfortable fit.
We lose the focus on character and place a bit as the action switches to the wild and disputed Georgian territory of Abkhazia, for a spectacular climax. The story is packed with chilling speculation about genetic experiments from the Stalin era, enhanced soldiers and humans configured to be voracious killing machines.
Simon Conway creates intriguing characters and storylines, but the book seems too rich at times – characters, places, conspiracies and multiple defections jostling for attention – and the leap from murder mystery to speculative thriller is a jolt that dents the tension. In its undoubted favour are its pulsating pace and the frightening possibilities it depicts.