A Cursed Place

Written by Peter Hanington

Review written by Michael Jecks

A Cursed Place
Two Roads
RRP: £16.99
Released: July 8 2021

My first reaction? Not good. When I see that someone who has been a BBC journalist for twenty-five years has been published, and that he has wonderful shout lines from Kirsty Wark, Michael Palin, Melvyn Bragg, Allan Little, and a raft of other BBC members of staff or those who are often interviewed by the BBC, I start to get a reaction - probably of jealousy. However, seriously, what do Kirsty Wark, Michael Palin or Melvyn Bragg know about thrillers? This feels like a lot of friends of the author doing their best for him and giving him a shout out. Which is really kind of them, and I’m sure that Hanington is a lovely guy, but it rankles to see such puffery. Still, I am a reviewer, and I won’t be swayed by the great and the good making their own pitch.

I picked this up immediately after reading Simon Conway’s excellent THE SABOTEUR, which is my highest rated book of the year so far. And I really enjoyed a lot of this book.

What is it about? Well, it is basically a look at high tech, and how algorithms may start to impact all our lives. There is a massive super-company called Public Square (think Facebook on steroids) in Cupertino, which has its messy little fingers in all kinds of pies. It’s run and owned by husband-and-wife team, Elizabeth and Fred Curepipe. She is film-goddess-beautiful (blonde, naturally) as well as incredibly clever (some people have all the luck) while Fred is just brilliant.

One of their pies happens to be a Chilean mine in Brochu, and the story starts here. First we meet Jags, a thoughtful, haiku-obsessive, who happens to be a deeply unlikeable fellow who tops his companion in the first pages. Public Square has ideas for the area. I’m not sure we ever learn what these plans might be - I might have missed that - but they involve bringing the whole community on board.

From there we move to more action in Hong Kong, where Patrick Reid, a BBC radio man, is shacked up in a posh hotel, interviewing students who are protesting. And this is where the story really takes off. Hanington writes with conviction and quite a lot of charm about the life of a reporter abroad, the politics, the camaraderie and the work involved. We move to England and Patrick’s mentor, Carver, a long-in-the-tooth journalist who’s spent time on the TODAY programme, who is now on a sabbatical teaching journalism to a group of not-terribly-competent students, apart from “Naz”, who is very eager and enthusiastic. But his own enthusiasm is clearly questionable, since we learn that he has still not unpacked or put away his “grab bag”, and is ready to fly across the world at a moment’s notice.

His quiet life is about to change, as his old friend Jemima McCluskey from the BBC’s Caversham listening post gets in touch about some interesting research she has been conducting. It involves messages in various languages, and mentions a “repairman”.

And that is where the thrilling bit starts to kick in. Wherever there is upset and protests, there appears to be coordination in response. When suspicious deaths occur, social media gets flooded with speculation and obvious disinformation that obscures what really happened - and it is that which sets off the conspiracy theory, and the investigation into Public Square.

This is a book full of fascinating characters. Carver, McCluskey and Patrick Reid (I had to look up his surname, because Hanington refers to him as Patrick throughout the book, and his girlfriend as Rebecca. All the characters are first name only through the book, apart from McCluskey and Carver - which seemed a little odd). The book really gets into its stride after about page forty, when we get to meet McCluskey, and the story develops with the four main strands: England and the investigation, Chile and the mine, Hong Kong and the student protests, and America with the Public Square offices.

And when it takes off, it works well. Hanington knows how to weave a plot, and he has created some memorable people in this tale of skulduggery, murder and conspiracy. I thought the scene in which Rebecca realises she’s being followed was brilliant. The scenes with Carver and McCluskey were … I think the best term would be “affectionate”. Hanington clearly has a lot of sympathy for people in their roles, as he has with Patrick.

The pace increases noticeably from the middle onwards. That’s not to say it’s slow, but it is a story in which the scenes are set out very clearly for the reader. As I read on, the book began to really grip, and I was unable to put the book down. I consumed the last half of the book in an evening. I was forced to - how on earth could Hanington bring together all the loose ends and give a satisfactory conclusion to this story?

And … I’m afraid he didn’t. Not really, not for me. This is a book rather like an early John Grisham, in which the set-up is great, the character development excellent, the plot superb, but which suddenly finishes, leaving the reader feeling a bit short-changed. I always used to think it might be because Grisham was a lawyer. He had been given a contract for 120,000 words, and when he hit that target, he shut off the story. He had fulfilled his contract.

In this case, I didn’t get the feeling that the story had reached a natural end point. In fact, it reads more like the first in a series. Perhaps it is? I don’t know.

However, I did have other problems. There are, at a rough count, five psychopaths in this book. Now, I am a crime writer, and I have written plenty of murder stories, but I find it hard to believe that it would be possible to hire that many psychopaths without someone noticing certain behaviour traits. And there, really, was the biggest issue for me. I had to read this book - it was immensely diverting and entertaining, right through to the last pages - but I never had the conviction that the bad characters depicted were believable. All the BBC and the British reporters, yes, they were. But the American characters were all shallow or damaged, and that just didn’t work for me.

So, two problems for me. However, I would still recommend this book. The weaknesses are not so dire that the story was ruined, and this was a truly compulsive read. I wanted to know what would happen, especially to the English reporters and McCluskey. However, that ending was deeply unsatisfying - for me.

I was left hanging.


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