Thanks to Alex, Rosie and the whole team at Pen & Sword for providing me a Hardback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
I might as well confess I am not a big reader of action thrillers or fiction about special operation units or single-handed special operatives that can sort any kind of dangerous situations anywhere in the world by virtue of what seems to be an incredible array of all kinds of skills, from talking no-end of languages, fighting hand-to-hand, hacking into computers, or using the most sophisticated equipment, while, of course, never getting caught and keeping everybody safe (except for the bad guys, evidently). But I have read some of these stories, and watched films about similar characters. And, entertaining as they are, I always felt they stretched my suspension of disbelief a bit too far.
When I started reading this book, I realised what a distance there is between those fictional accounts and what really goes on in some of the places most of us only hear about in the news. The author, Anthony Nott, MBE (he talks about attending the ceremony where he was awarded the honour in 2010 at the end of the book) is a real-life hero, one of these people who feel a sense of duty, are professional and dedicated to the task at hand, have high moral and ethical standards, and despite their personal sympathies and alliances, are happy to give everybody the benefit of the doubt if they are willing to work to make things better.
After working for years for the Metropolitan police and then the Dorset Police (in the UK), including reviewing some high profile cases, he retired at the rank of detective superintendent. But a couple of years before he retired, he was asked to lead the British forensic team in Kosovo and that proved to be only the beginning of a new phase in his professional life, that took him, once he was retired, to Bosnia, Iraq and also Israel and Palestine. As I have said, this is not one of those stories we are used to in fiction, where no matter how many challenges our hero faces, things always go his way. The author was involved in some pretty well-known investigations, and despite his eagerness in trying to use his expertise and that of his collaborators to reach a solution, that was not always possible. I won’t go into many details, but the mixture of corruption at local level (the international teams were supposed to support the local police and help set their own teams, and not take over the task, and that often meant the old-ways of doing things prevailed, and sometimes the criminals and those supposed to catch them were far too close for comfort), lack of resources, complex political situations and alliances, and the threat of violence and revenge, meant that not all the cases were solved.
Despite that, the book is superb at giving us a first-hand understanding of the complex social and political situation in these places, and also at highlighting the difficulties of trying to work in such circumstances. It does take pretty special people to make it work, and Nott is one of them. Apart from his sense of duty, a very sharp and dry sense of humour, and a knack for understanding and evaluating the rules of the game wherever he lands, he is skilled at spotting people’s strengths and weaknesses and a great judge of character. He also excels at communicating with each individual at his/her level and at bringing diverse people together to collaborate in a variety of projects, spotting their chief abilities and making the best use of them. Despite reluctance all around, he manages to adopt some of the tried and trusted methods of policing he had used back home and sets up procedures that help the local forces deal with the crime in their mist.
The author gets involved in many investigations for some horrific crimes, from crimes of war, to human trafficking for the sex trade, terrorism, gang-related crime, murders, kidnapping, and everything in between. Although he comes across pretty nasty people, he always emphasises the many good professionals he meets along the way, from all nationalities, and also the kindness and the courage of most of the locals, who try to get on with their lives in very traumatic circumstances.
As I have mentioned before, the author’s style is straightforward and conversational, and one gets the sense that if we met Mr Nott, he would sound pretty much as he does in the book, and he does not create a fancy persona for his readers. It is clear that there are things he cannot reveal and he keeps them under wraps, and although we might or might not agree with his political stance (that he only mentions in passing), it is impossible not to appreciate his candour and his dedication. He is not one for complaining, even when circumstances can be frustrating, and he gets on with the task at hand without making excuses or blaming the difficulties on others. He never fails to give credit where credit is due and he makes clear that policing is a team effort. The book is mostly about his missions, although he offers glimpses of his personal life at home and the price he and his family had to pay for his dedication and involvement.
The book is not evenly divided, and the chapters dedicated to Kosovo, Bosnia and Iraq are much longer than the rest, probably because they are further away in time, he can discuss them in more detail, and the cases feel more familiar and easier to understand from a general readership perspective. The hardback (and I understand the same applies to the e-book copy) has a number of great colour pictures, and maps that illustrate locations, settings, and protagonists of some of the episodes he describes in the book.
I could not resist and had to share a few samples so you can get a sense of what the writing is like.
Some examples of his dry humour:
“Now, the Bosnian Serbs in Banja Luka were not generally too fond of the British, somewhat on account of the RAF bombing them in 1995” (Nott, 2017, p. 56).
Here, talking about one of the men he was working with:
“Amazing to think that if the cold war had turned hot he could have been one half of a two-man team to release his missile and fry millions of British and American citizens” (Nott, 2017, p. 103).
Here, a homage to one of the Americans he worked with, Robert Swann, that I find particularly touching in its understatement:
“He was one of those people who never seemed to be got down by the mayhem all around him and had a wonderful sense of humour; his men adored him. He was killed two years later in northern Iraq when he took a bullet in the neck above the line of his body armour” (Nott, 2017, p. 111).
Writing about the Iraqi Police, he acknowledges the incredibly tough circumstances they work under:
The Iraqi Police Service (IPS) were claimed by one police general I worked closely with, to be losing 250 men and women killed in action each month, with 400 wounded. The police and country was struggling to survive and the whole operation was frequently likened to building a motorway with the traffic still running on it. (Nott, 2017, p. 117)
Most readers will find parallels with current political situations, will share the author’s outrage at some of the things that happen and at how the different criminal justice systems work (or don’t) and will likely gain insights into the complex situation and the recent history of those areas. Such details, that would be difficult to obtain from any other sources, are invaluable to anybody interested in the topic, and also to researchers or writers thinking about setting up their books or studies in the period and locations.
Although anybody reading the book will understand the author’s decision to retire from such activities, it is clear the international policing forces have lost a great man. I recommend this book to anybody keen on the recent history of the areas in question, also to those interested in international policing and cooperation at such level and to writers who want to research this period and are considering setting their books in that era. A great insight into international policing in conflictive zones provided by a true-life hero.