Deadly Game
Michael Caine
Hodder & Stoughton £20

Earlier this year, Sir Michael Caine announced his retirement from acting. Rather than rest on his laurels, the 90-year-old has embarked on a new career as a novelist.

During the lockdown, he spent his time conjuring up the kind of fast-paced thriller he likes to read. Caine is no stranger to publishing having written a best-selling autobiography and several well-received books on the art and craft of acting.

Deadly Game, his first foray into fiction, is a contemporary thriller, following DCI Harry Taylor and his specialist team from the London Met as they race against international criminals to secure a box containing radioactive material.

The tale opens in Stepney, East London, and Caine’s familiarity with the area creates an atmosphere of plausibility, both for the people and the place.

Caine has said that a newspaper article about two men from the East End who found uranium abandoned in a rubbish tip inspired his debut. In his novel, a metal box containing radioactive material is left at a dump but disappears before the police arrive to investigate.

One of the men who works at the dump recalls certain letters and numbers written on the box and it soon becomes clear it contains uranium. A pursuit begins to find the uranium before it ends up in dangerous hands. Various UK security services wrangle to take control of the search, stepping on each other’s toes while politicians exert pressure on the police to solve the case. SO22, a specialist police department, is tasked with investigating from the shadows, steering clear of any other sections of the police or security services.

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Caine has long been an avid reader of thrillers, citing Tom Clancy and Lee Child amongst his favourite authors. In keeping with the tropes of the genre, Caine’s lead character is a maverick police officer who gets results but doesn’t always play by the rules. Enter DCI Harry Taylor of section SO22 of the Metropolitan police, a 45-year-old, ex-SAS soldier with a dodgy leg. (Caine has played several characters called Harry during his film career and himself has a dodgy leg.) Taylor is smart, brave, and often able to outwit both the criminals he apprehends and the political manoeuvrings of his Met bosses.

The Herald: Author Lee ChildAuthor Lee Child (Image: Sam Atkins)

It is not hard to imagine Caine, in his younger days, playing Taylor in a film, driving along in his old Jaguar XJS, sporting jeans and a leather jacket, an outlier coming to terms with the rules and regulations of the modern police force. However, Taylor is not so old-school that he will tolerate racist or sexist comments, and equally hates the bureaucracy at New Scotland Yard.

He knows he sometimes bends the rules to breaking point, but his sense of justice over-rides this, keeping his bosses happy. Caine doesn’t add anything new to the archetypal maverick police officer character, but Taylor is likeable and carries the story well on his broad shoulders. He’s impulsive and has a temper but his team are loyal to him.

Taylor works with a small team; long-time colleague DI John Williams, and DS Iris Davies, one of the Met’s top snipers. Inspector Carol Walker, a forensic expert specialising in nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, is seconded to the team.

Caine gives the supporting cast some individuality to round out their characters but Taylor, and the various criminals he is chasing, are the stars of the show.

Two well-known villains rise to the top of Taylor’s list of suspects, Russian oligarch Vladimir Voldrev, and Julian Smythe, a flamboyant London art dealer. Neither would be out of place in a Bond movie, with their ostentatious homes and vulgar displays of power.

Their legitimate business interests provide cover for several illegal activities but neither has been pinned down to a specific crime. Power, and money, means that witnesses are scarce, frustrating police officers like Taylor. He knows that Smythe runs enormous quantities of illegal drugs into London but can’t find the proof to arrest him. Similarly, Voldrev seems to be Teflon-coated, with security services across the world unable to prove his illegal activities.

The Herald: Michael Caine in his last film The Great EscaperMichael Caine in his last film The Great Escaper (Image: Warner Bros)

Taylor has no qualms about letting both suspects know that he is on their trails, determined to find the missing uranium no matter what it takes. The detailed descriptions of police procedures, tactics and weapons lend the action sequences a sense of authenticity. The technical apparatus of modern policing is impressive but as far as Taylor is concerned, nothing beats a copper’s nous.

He relies on his gut feelings as much as the top-secret information that feeds into his mobile phone. There are gun battles, woundings and murders but Caine does not linger longer than necessary on any gory scenes.

He is more interested in the battle of wits between Taylor and his adversaries, a battle Taylor doesn’t always win.

The novel is well-paced, building to a climax with some wrong turns, dead ends, and red herrings carefully planted along the way. A detour to Barbados, to visit Voldrev’s private island, gives an international feel to the story. Voldrev’s island lair is suitably dazzling, the house and extensive gardens inspired by the palace of Versailles. The verbal sparring between Taylor and Voldrev, each knowing that if the other is if not lying then they are certainly dissembling, is sharp and occasionally funny.

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Caine is smart enough to know that publishing his debut novel could be seen as a gamble if it is not well received. However, he does seem to be having a ball and his energy and drive make for a lively, page-turning read, peppered with some unexpected twists and turns.

The highly theatrical denouement is startling, and Caine has done well to conceal certain secrets until the end. Taylor is a character Caine could run with in more adventures and it would not be surprising if he were already working on the next instalment.

This novel won’t win any literary prizes, but it is far from being embarrassing and is a solid addition to the thriller genre that Caine enjoys so much.