BOOK REVIEW / Jennifer rattles the skeletons in Germany: 'Nightmare, With Angel' - Stephen Gallagher: NEL, 15.99

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The Independent Online
Stephen Gallagher could be the finest British writer of best-selling popular fiction since Le Carre. That is not to say that his latest psychological thriller, Nightmare, With Angel, is as good a book as, say, The Perfect Spy; rather that Gallagher, like Le Carre, is a novelist whose themes seem to reflect something of the essence of our times, and a novelist whose skill lies in embedding those themes in accessible plots.

Like most of the writers who dominate the airport bookstall end of the fiction market - Clive Cussler, Colin Forbes, Danielle Steel, Sidney Sheldon et al - Gallagher has arrived stealthily from nowhere. It is a convenient falsehood that airport best sellers are simply the product of corporate hype. The simple truth is that the vast majority of best-selling authors are launched by the fierce discrimination of readers indifferent to literary fashion. You do not consistently sell millions of paperbacks unless you have, at the least, mastered the deceptively simple art of telling a story.

This is Gallagher's eighth novel. He began a decade ago as an out-and-out horror novelist (with the recently televised Chimera) before deciding to make his monsters more recognisably human. He achieved something of a breakthrough with his fifth novel Down River, a book set across a blighted northern English landscape, which dragged the police procedural into uncharted regions: the monster at its heart was a demonic cop.

Down River provided an unvarnished picture of Britain in the late Eighties - a rotten, decaying place full of greed and hopelessness. The book's successors, Rain and The Boat House, delved further into this territory - two stories of lost women set in an England of wet motorway service stations and deserted seaside tearooms.

Nightmare, With Angel makes a slight return to the world of Down River, with the reappearance of that novel's good cop, Jennifer McGann. It starts off in familiar Gallagher territory, a dismal stretch of northern coastline attached to the kind of post-industrial countryside where you are never more than a half hour from a Nissan showroom or a B & Q Superstore. Then the book's action, an extended man-and-child hunt, takes us to Germany; not the tourist towns but Hamburg, Dusseldorf and points in between. There is little sign of economic miracle- working here; it is just another grimy

industrial country, albeit an expensive

one for a couple of English runaways to stay in.

The plot is nicely shaded. A 10-year-old girl named Marianne lives with her preoccupied father in a bleak house by the sea, her mother having vanished back to her native Germany. The girl is saved from drowning by a local outcast beachcomber, a man named Ryan who, as a teenager, murdered a little girl. The neglected Marianne clings to Ryan despite his efforts to keep her away. Eventually, a somewhat implausible set of circumstances provoke their flight to Germany in search of Marianne's mother; but it turns out that the woman they are looking for has her own awful secret. Meanwhile, the police of two countries are pursuing Ryan for kidnapping Marianne; and so the plot builds to a bloody climax.

Gallagher's skill is apparent in his deft balancing of an action plot - the manhunt - and a psychological plot - the relationship between the precocious Marianne and the tormented Ryan. These are set against a backdrop detailed enough to include an Anglo-German police procedural and some pertinent observations on the brutal collision between new and old Europes thrown up by the reunification of Germany.

Nightmare, With Angel is not a great book. If you take a step back from the action, from the book's sheer pace, you will see the flaws: the flimsiness of his major characters' original motivations; the generally rather bland minor characters; the over-reliance on coincidence, a fault endemic to blockbuster thrillers; and so on.

But all the same, here is a fast, smart, emotionally involving and authentically new European thriller which confirms Stephen Gallagher's particular fictional talent: rattling the skeletons in a country's closet.