A Killing Sin, by K.H. Irvine, is a tense and engaging psychological thriller, although it does take a little while to get into. The fragmented structure – short chapters that jump around in time and point of view – lead to early confusion as to who is who. The core characters are three friends who met while at university, two decades previously. Also important are their partners, both business and personal. Adding to the mix are family members – how much can those we love and believe we know, truly be trusted? Once character names are remembered and relationships understood enjoyment of the tense and timely plot becomes the key reading experience.
The story is set a few years in the future, in a post-Brexit London. Amala and Neil are tech entrepreneurs who made their fortune developing tracking software that the government now embeds in personal ID cards and payment systems. Amala is also an irreverent stand-up comic, harnessing the tropes of Islam for edgy if uncomfortable laughs. Neil advises politicians and has the ear of the Prime Minister – they went through the same public school education system.
Amala befriended Ella and Millie when they all attended Edinburgh University. Ella is a freelance journalist, currently working on what she believes will be two huge stories that should finally establish her professional credentials. Millie is a psychologist specialising in radicalisation and increasingly asked to work with government departments to profile potential terrorists and their recruitment methods. These intelligent and wealthy friends are about to have their privileged worlds turned upside down.
While Neil and Millie are in a meeting with the Prime Minister and other officials, they are informed that Neil’s partner has been taken hostage by Muslim extremists. An horrific video of her being tortured and maimed is played. Money is demanded along with the closure of controversial Prevent and Protect Centres whose staff routinely harass young men whose appearance is considered suspicious.
The Prime Minister insists that his government will not negotiate with terrorists. Neil is determined to do whatever it takes to save his partner. He harnesses the considerable talents and power of his tech company in an attempt to find where the hostage is being held. GCHQ, MI5, the police and military are called in to assist. The focus is on Tower Hamlets where radical extremists have imposed Sharia Law and where what appears to be diversionary rioting is now taking place. Then a suicide bomber walks into a building in Central London and detonates.
Complex issues are touched upon without detracting from the suspense and action: Mass surveillance or civil liberties? Freedom of speech or a crack down on offensive language when dealing with sensitive topics? The right to choose how to dress or a tool of suppression? How much leeway should venal governments be granted in order to supposedly protect citizens? Extremes on both sides are portrayed.
The author is unafraid to confront the existence of radical Muslims and their desire to force prescribed behaviour on more tolerant believers. By involving westerners whose personal wealth and professional position provides distance from the wider effects of their work, the story brings home how much it is possible to switch off from worrying actions happening elsewhere in the world. The hostage taker points out that in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan innocent lives have been lost for a cause western governments claim is worth such ‘collateral damage’. In bringing their battle to London the terrorists are unapologetic when bystanders – infidels – die.
The background to the plot may be religious and political but this remains a tense thriller with a roller coaster of events playing out as the reader tries to guess what could happen next. The writing is fluid and the structure well paced for maximum engagement after the slower beginning. It is a timely reminder of cause and effect, of the complexity of military action and resulting carnage – that we cannot predict how even those close to us will react to losses inflicted. A thought provoking and compelling read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane.