Tuesday, October 13, 2015


GOLDEN SERPENT by Mark Abernethy (Arena Books, 2007)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm 

Tough Aussie spy, Alan McQueen, was once a star of the global intelligence community, renowned for having shot and killed Abu Sabaya, one of the world's most dangerous terrorists

But that was 2002. During a routine assignment in Indonesia, McQueen - aka Mac - discovers Sabaya is not in fact dead.  Instead he's teamed up with a rogue CIA veteran and is armed with a cache of stolen VX nerve agent, which he's threatening to deploy in a dramatic and deadly manner.

Espionage thrillers these days frequently put "the terrorists" in the old black hat role - the starring role the spies from the Soviet Union and the like used to occupy.  The Terrorists in these incarnations can come from anywhere - they could be Russian (mafia or not), they can frequently be Middle Eastern, or as in Golden Serpent, they are Asian.  One thing that doesn't really change that much is the nature of the threat - it tends to be huge, the weapons devastating, the results of their possible success vast and catastrophic.  And in GOLDEN SERPENT, as you'd want in a good espionage thriller, it's a small band of brave men up against the unimaginable.

Okay, so it's not unheard of for that style of book to get really silly really quickly, especially if it's all feats of daring doing in darkened and dangerous places.  Luckily GOLDEN SERPENT does do a fair amount of daring doing, but avoids silly by some distance.  Possibly this is because the central protagonist - Australian Secret Intelligence Service operative Alan "Mac" McQueen, has done a lot in his Military Intelligence life, but real life is tempting him.  For all the good old fashioned reasons.  He's met a girl and he really thinks Diane is "the one".  His problem is that he doubts a life married to the service is a big selling point, so he's trying to get out.  But, as you'd expect, his bosses want one last mission, and it's not that straightforward.  He has to locate and return an Australian agent who has gone missing from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta.  Mac and a crack team of American Green Berets have to find her - but part of the problem is that nobody knows if she's voluntarily gone missing or has been kidnapped.

GOLDEN SERPENT works probably because there are a lot of different levels for it to work in.  Rather than a straight out, untouchable hero type, Mac is a real human being - he panics a bit, he struggles with nausea, he sweats and works up quite a head of steam before and during the action scenes.  There are also great touches of dry Aussie humour sprinkled throughout - only one of our action hero's would "backpedal like a politician" when confronted by a brown snake in a ditch, in the middle of the night, in the Australian outback.  The other thing that works is the sense of menace that is built up around the "bad guys".  The terrorists are pursued, their plots and machinations revealed as the story builds, but in some ways they are sort of veiled, menacing, quietly lurking.  It's cleverly done.  There is a lot of bang bang shoot 'em up and a lot of charging around, but there is also a willingness for that to sometimes go horribly wrong - which gives the action a harder, slightly more threatening edge.

Sure there's a bit of a sloppy happy ending, but GOLDEN SERPENT roars to that ending with a lot of suspense, some true nail biting moments, some laugh out loud moments and a hefty dose of pure entertainment.

Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, a terrific resource - please check it out. Karen also reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel

Her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders will now be shared here on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction. We thank her for letting us republish this old review of Mark Abernethy's debut espionage thriller as part of our ongoing NZ crime fiction review project. Abernethy is a New Zealand born and raised journalist who moved to Australia as an adult. 

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