Crisis - BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner's action-packed debut novel
A "dirty" bomb is acquired by Nelson "El Pobrecito" Garcia, an immensely powerful South American drug baron and delivered (by sea) to the heart of the UK in an attempted revenge attack. It may not be actually ticking, but the clock certainly is. Our hero, Luke Carlton, a former Special Boat Service commando, is the key player in a gruesome and violent battle to save London.
Being the BBC's Security Correspondent is a serious business, so it must have been deeply satisfying and refreshing for Frank Gardner to be able to create more than 450 pages of nail-biting fiction - dotted with a few risqué words and phrases that he could never get to use in his TV or radio broadcasts. His vast experience of matters of global security, terrorism (himself a victim, of course) and military matters enables him to offer the reader engrossing behind-the-scenes detail. A non-stop flurry of excitement pervades the book.
This passage is typical: "No mission was supposed to set off without a stack of escort aircraft ready to race to their rescue if they hit trouble. Sometimes the response would be a pair of Warthogs: squat, ugly US Airforce A10 Thunderbolt jets that came screaming out of nowhere, spitting 30mm shells from a rotating Gatling cannon in their nose, a rate of fire so fast it made a noise like an angry chainsaw. Sometimes it would be a pair of Apache helicopter gunships, under-slung with cannon and Hellfire missiles that could lock onto a target eight kilometres away, and sometimes it would be 'fast air': RAF Tornados or NATO F16 fighter jets or the like, dropping their 500-pound bombs, then disappearing over the horizon. And sometimes it would be a Reaper drone, a UAV, hovering unseen and heard, controlled and directed by a pair of 'pilots' in a windowless cabin on a base in Nevada".
There's humour too, such as the toe-curlingly embarrassing scene when Luke Carlton, on a top-secret mission, lands - hopefully under cover - at Bogota airport, where he is greeted by Colombian police.
Having reassured himself that none of his fellow passengers or airport staff are paying him any inappropriate attention he suddenly hears a voice saying: "Luke! Luke Carlton? Is that you?"
Oh, Christ, this was all he needed, writes Gardner.
"It is you!" says the man. "Oh my God, I don't believe it. It's Steve! Stevie Monk! Bella, I was at uni with this guy."
Carlton is fuming. Steve Monk, a "total arse" approaches, "grinning from ear to ear, a Union Jack T-shirt beneath his fleece.
"His companion, Bella, was in a pair of uncomfortably tight white jeans above purple-and-mauve striped socks.
"'They are with you?' asked the Colombian police officer, looking questioningly from Luke to the backpackers. 'No!' replied Luke, a little too emphatically. 'Absolutely not'."
But Monk had "whipped out his phone and snapped a photo".
"Didn't you join the SAS or something?" continues the wretched Monk. "And what brings you to Colombia? You're not under arrest already, are you? Been indulging in a bit of the old Bolivian marching powder, already, have we?"
Monk, says Gardner, "laughed at his own crass joke".
The snapshot of Carlton ends up on Monk's Twitter account. But our hero is relieved when HQ tells him they've "shaded" the account. "It's just a little trick the tech people can do" they tell him. "It means Monk can use his Twitter account to his heart's content but nobody else can see what he's posting. He won't know that of course. His account is effectively frozen."
There's more fascinating and realistic detail when we read about the contents of Carlton's rucksack. Apart from the Swiss-made Sig Sauer P229 pistol, there's a phial of quick-clot blood coagulant, a combat tourniquet, a gel-based body-armour vest which, "when hit with sudden force, hardened in a fraction of a second", a prismatic compass, HF radio comms equipment, a hunting knife, torch, water purification tablets, survival kit and emergency rations.
Later it emerges that a so-called "zero-day bug" enables the drugs cartel to use a sort of reverse USB stick to suck information out of British military operations computers rather than inject information into them - in this case the latest positions of all Britain's naval vessels in the Atlantic and the English Channel .
It's helpful and encouraging that rather like the thriller writer Peter James, Gardner divides his novel into short chapters - 112 of them counting the prologue and epilogue. So when you finish a chapter of two or three pages and notice that the next chapter is roughly the same length it's a huge incentive to keep reading! Will London survive? Not telling. The book's title scarcely does justice to such a thrilling read.
Crisis, by Frank Gardner, is published by Bantam Press at £12.99.