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December 30, 2005

'If you meet her again, she'll be the last thing you'll see'


So reads the cover of Mark Burnell's first thriller, "The Rhythm Section."

I first heard of Burnell in a review in The Economist of the latest (fourth) book in his series featuring Stephanie Patrick, aka Petra Reuter and whomever else she needs to be to accomplish her missions.

The reviewer recommended going back to the first and then reading them in sequence.

Excellent idea.

I just finished the third, entitled "Gemini," right on the heels of the second, "Chameleon."

Long story short: Stephanie is a college student in England whose life is turned upside down when her parents, brother and sister are killed in a plane crash in the late 1990s.

She spirals downward into a hell of grief and pain, turning to drugs, drink and prostitution to try to numb herself.

Near death, she happens to bump into an investigative reporter who's making his rounds in her section of London.

He tells her that he has conclusive evidence that the crash was not the result of an accident but, rather, a terrorist bomb.

The news galvanizes Stephanie, who slowly and painfully extricates herself from her death spiral and begins to plan revenge on those who murdered her parents.

She is instead drawn, against her wishes, into a netherworld of black ops and eventually forced to join Magenta House, a shadowy British organization whose charter begins where those of MI5 and MI6 end.

As such, she is trained to become one of the world's most dangerous assassins, drawn deep into a mirror world of espionage where deniability isn't necessary since there is nothing to deny — the agency she works for doesn't exist in a normal sense.


Over the course of the three books I've read so far Stephanie's character deepens and becomes increasingly intriguing, primarily because of the dichotomy between her real world identity of Stephanie Patrick and her operational one as Petra Reuter.

Suffice it to say Petra is a cold–blooded assassin with incredible skills and fearlessless along with a willingness to absorb frightening punishment and pain and continue to function with an almost insane singlemindedness to complete her mission.

The author's attention to the nuances of her personality and her wish to love and be loved and her simultaneous recognition that it is impossible for her to do so, split as she is to her very core, makes this heroine most subtle and complex and interesting.

The details of the places, people and weaponry, along with the tradecraft involved in creating aliases and one–time–use identities down to their tiniest particulars, are extremely absorbing.

I'm saving the last book in the series, "The Third Woman," for a few weeks from now, so I have something to really anticipate.

From the books:


    Petra's was never a large profession. Sure, you can find a killer on a street corner in the run–down district of any city. You can even find self-styled assassins relatively easily; in the Balkans, or the Middle East, you can't move for enthusiastic amateurs. But those of us who formed the elite numbered no more than a dozen. Our backgrounds were diverse but we were united by the quality of our manufacture.

    I used to imagine meeting other members of the club. I pictured us sitting around a table in a restaurant, trading industry secrets, putting faces to names, assessing the competition. I'd hear gossip from time to time. Usually from Stern, the information broker, who'd offer a morsel in the hope that I would pay for something juicier.

    When I was Petra Reuter, none of the concerns of Stephanie Patrick affected me. Nor did any of the issues surrounding my profession. I didn't worry about morality. I worried about efficiency. I didn't worry about the target. If I was offered the contract, he or she was already dead because if I didn't accept the work, somebody else would. When I looked through a telescopic sight, or into the eyes of the victim, I never saw a person. I never thought about the money, either; that came later. Instead, I was always thinking... would any of the others have done this better than me?




    I don't bother trying to pick a fight. In the past I would have. And Alexander would have expected me to. But we're beyond that now. These days I know what I am and I don't bother to deny it. I've accepted myself. I'm a professional woman of twenty–nine, trying to balance my work with my private life. On the Underground, in the supermarket, at home or in the office, most of my concerns are the same as everyone else's. It's only the nature of my work that marks me out.

    Upstairs, on the ground floor, I run into Rosie Chaudhuri. I haven't seen her since she came to Maclise Road after Marrakech. The fact that we're friends is strange because we're so different. She truly believes in Magenta House. She heads S10, Operations (Invisible), the newest section, which was established afer the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. S10 leaves no traces. Its victims die from natural causes, or accidents, or they simply vanish, ensuring they don't become martyrs. Among Magenta House staff, S10 is always referred to as the Ether Division.

    Rosie's parents are both first–generation immigrants. Both are doctors, both still practising; her mother is a GP, her father is a chest specialist. They live in north London and have three other children, all boys. Two work in the City, one shoots commercials. None of them has any idea what she does. Like me, she lies. Like me, she's so good at it, it's as natural to her as telling the truth. They believe she's a security analyst at the Centre for Defence Studies at King's College, London. Elsewhere it might seem strange that a young second–generation Indian woman is heading an outfit like the Ether Division. But in our world it seems perfectly normal because we can be anybody we need to be at any given moment.


I just checked Amazon U.S. and for some bizarre reason Burnell's first book ["The Rhythm Section"] is priced at $80 and up, probably because it's out of print in this country.


If you'd like to read it, order it from Amazon Canada where it's $10 (Canadian).

December 30, 2005 at 05:01 PM | Permalink


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Try Abebooks...lots of copies from $1.00 US for a paperback to $115 for a fine first UK edition. www.abebooks.com

Posted by: Diane | Jun 13, 2006 12:57:13 PM

just placed the order from amazon.ca it was a total of $19.98CAN with shipping to USA, which today works out to about $17.16US.

Posted by: aaron | Jan 2, 2006 11:57:04 AM

He must be a prized commodity, old Mark - even on eBay the listed start price is $25 (or $75 for Buy it Now) - for The Rhythm Section...The Third Woman doesn't even feature...going to look out for it...looks very interesting. Will check out Amazon Canada too...

Posted by: Wendy | Dec 31, 2005 11:54:52 AM

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