‘And there I was, thinking you were just a hired gun.’
She smiled. He did not.
‘You want a gun, ma’am, I’ll bring one. I need to know the situation before selecting the weapon.’
He cracked the smallest of smiles.
‘An RPG is hard to hide in a tux, ma’am. No matter how pleased I may be to see you.’
In this collection, every story has a sting in its tale. Nothing is necessarily as it seems. The action men mete out violence, sometimes with exquisitely-planned professional aplomb, at other times with almost intimate tenderness. Bad people suffer and die. Good people suffer and die. Half the time, it’s not entirely obvious where you draw the line between either side – author Frank Westworth has peopled his universe with complicated characters, none of them entirely clear cut. The reader’s sympathies are skilfully manipulated so you can’t help rooting for Stoner and his crew, even when their actions inflame conventional moral sensibilities.
And if all that sounds a bit up itself – don’t worry: there’s plenty of light relief. The atmosphere veers from snortingly witty one-liners to stone-cold serious in the briefest beat of a stifled breath. For every moral dilemma there’s a satisfyingly physical, sometimes fatal, exchange. Stoner is a wise ass; as dryly ironic as he is unambiguously dangerous. You’ve got to love a man who plays slide guitar with a gun suppressor…
Each of the six stand-alone stories (five have been published separately as individual ebooks; one is unique to this anthology) presents a slice of life in the career of a professional assassin, JJ Stoner. Stoner was a military man, and his transition from army sergeant to contract killer starts in ‘First Contract’. The author pulls no emotional punches with the opening scenes of ruthless execution, set in the desert sands of Iraq. Some people might call Stoner’s actions a war crime. Others find them entirely understandable. Either way, the opening episode sets a pattern in the story-telling where the events of Stoner’s profession mirror key moments in the real world.
This device allows Westworth to explore some intriguing instances of ‘what if?’. What if behind the headlines there were people like JJ Stoner, doing entirely deniable and occasionally awful things on behalf of the British government? What if, back in the early days of the Good Friday agreement, one of the feuding political groups in Ireland felt betrayed by a certain man of the cloth, and wanted to enmesh the UK government in an untidy demise? What if responsibility for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill wasn’t entirely clear-cut? What might the men from No Such Agency do to ensure that the truth remains untold? And what might have happened to a discredited weapons inspector, in an English meadow near dawn on a summer’s day? What happened before the blood was spilled, before the shots were fired, before the car crash or the brutal blow to the soft tissues?
Blackmail, brawling, knife fights and gun play – it’s all in The Stoner Stories, although Stoner himself frequently plays second fiddle to an assorted cast of well-constructed characters. Soldiers, hookers and men from the ministry, many of whom play a pivotal part in the subsequent Killing Sisters series; all make their entrances in these quick thrillers. Yet you don’t need to have read any of Westworth’s full-length novels to enjoy these rapid reads; you just need to know that you’re seeing one incident in a much bigger picture. You get the impression that when you reach the final page, the characters’ lives continue weaving truth and lies, betrayal and bloody vengeance… even when we’re not watching.
The Stoner Stories tread uncertain ground, somewhere in between literary fiction and popular thrillers. Comparisons with Jack Reacher and the books of Stephen Leather and David Baldacci are inevitable. At the very least, The Stoner Stories offer an entertaining way to pass an afternoon in the company of an utterly charming killer. At best, they are so much more than that.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Stoner Stories is available as an ebook or in paperback
Signed copies are available direct from the author