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The Powder Man - Paul Youden's Debut Thriller

Is it a good idea to review books written by friends? I'm not sure. But since my old chum Paul Youden has written his first thriller (with talk of a sequel) it would be churlish not to. Especially as he changed my life (definitely for the better) when, as editor of a ski magazine, he sent me and my then wife Veronica and our two young daughters Melissa and Samantha to Verbier, Switzerland so that I could write a feature for him. I'd only skied once in my life before that - as a teenager on a school trip. As a result of Youden's invitation, I eventually became a specialist ski writer, later becoming the Financial Times ski correspondent for 15 years and then editing the Ski Club of Great Britain's magazine Ski+board for 13 years. Such are the quirky and haphazard events that can shape one's life.

Winter-sports enthusiasts will be quick to appreciate the title of Youden's debut as a novelist. The word powder is the ultimate attraction in the off-piste skier's lexicon - meaning deep, fluffy, ungroomed virgin snow, preferably snow that's fallen recently. The word is also slang for cocaine, of course. And The Powder Man is a lively tale of how a snow-seeking young journalist (Peter Kingston) given his big break as a travel writer - escaping the more humdrum side of journalism - inadvertently falls foul of a gang of international drug smugglers. Since his first editor had often commented that he could "sniff out a good story" Kingston, one felt, even from Page 1, was bound to run into a major news story even while making his name as a travel writer. As indeed his does, almost paying for it with his life.

As it happens, I read The Powder Man while I was in Austria, getting a sneak preview of the new James Bond film, Spectre and even skiing the slopes in Sölden which feature in the film. I think this somewhat unlikely outing had some influence on my thoughts about The Powder Man. After all, Ian Fleming himself was a former journalist.

Youden's thriller starts with some fairly typical moments in the life of a regional news reporter, of which he had himself certainly had plenty experience early in his own newspaper career. But before long our hero is sighing to himself: "There must be something better out there for me somewhere". And indeed there is. It's the call of the mountains. And once again, as a former ski magazine editor, Youden is good on detail as he moves through various Alpine scenarios and ski areas in Austria. Is it by chance, one wonders, that Kingston's editor is called John Riddell? (It just so happens that Jimmy Riddell was vice-captain of the British ski team in the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the first Winter Games to stage down-hill skiing as distinct from just cross country and ski jumping.)

There has to be a romance element of course (can you image a Bond book with no Bond girls?) and, after resisting the entreaties of Melissa (same name as my eldest daughter - another coincidence) to settle down, this is supplied by Kingston's beautiful photographer friend and fellow-traveller Sue. The plot thickens as his travels through the Alps are disturbed by his constantly bumping into - apparently by accident - a group of shady characters that he can't quite place. The chief honcho turns out to be a drugs baron who remembers his face from a court case at which Kingston just happened to be an onlooker. He assumes the reporter's presence in the Alps is just a cover for a journalistic campaign to incriminate him and his gang in their latest drug-smuggling enterprise.

Kingston is duly kidnapped, shot and drugged - and then involved in a calamitous plane crash from which he narrowly escapes with his life, though at first comatose. But as in all the Bond books, our hero lives to fight another day. How else could there be a sequel? One major difference is that Kingston, unlike Bond, stays true - so far - to Sue, his devoted lover.

The Powder Man is published by the Book Guild at £8.99

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