Review published on December 6, 2017.
In recent years there’s been a crop of crime writing emerging from the British Asian community, brilliant writers whose work I’ve been honoured to review. Khurrum Rahman and his East of Hounslow joins Imran Mahmood’s debut You Don’t Know Me, Amer Anwar’s Western Fringes, and A.A. Dhand’s Streets of Darkness and Girl Zero. So how does he compare? Well, Rahman lives up to the competition and some.
East of Hounslow tells the story of Javid Qasim, “Jay”, a petty drug dealer carving an illicit living for himself on the streets of West London. He’s Muslim, but he’s not religious in the slightest, barely observant. He’s typical in fact of many young men who wander from the straight and narrow in these times of austerity, stagnant wages and a dearth of opportunities. But Jay is Muslim and through no fault of his own that is going to lead to problems for him. It starts when his local mosque is desecrated. Jay pitches in to help clean up the mess and repair the damage but it’s quickly apparent that some hotheads are stirring up trouble trying to get some of the local youths to hit back. Jay goes along to a meeting, more to look out for his gullible and impressionable friend. For similar reasons, when his friend gets drawn into the hype to hit back at some random whites, Jay goes along to keep him out of trouble. Of course, trouble is what they get, not least Jay’s car being swiped in the ensuing chaos, which so happens to have all the drugs he has on credit from a powerful drug lord in the boot.
Meanwhile, MI5 have their eyes on Jay as a potential recruit. They believe a cell of Islamic extremists is operating in the area and feel Jay would be the perfect informant. From here Jay’s life gets complicated and very dangerous. The druglord, Silas Drakos, is the unforgiving type. MI5 meanwhile sink their claws into him and Jay is recruited. So, he ends up juggling keeping an eye out for Silas’s henchmen, infiltrating a dangerous cell of extremists, all the while struggling with both his own sense of identity and MI5’s demands.
There are many things to like about East of Hounslow. It’s a thriller that moves along at a great pace and tells a compelling story, but it’s so much more than that. One thing I particularly liked about this book is the author’s depiction of Jay’s recruitment by MI5. As a current affairs journalist, I’ve had occasion in the past to meet with anti-terrorist officers, civil servants in the Cabinet Office, and others who’ve worked with the Security Services. One thing many writers get wrong is the process of source recruitment. Contrary to common belief, those employed directly on the staff of the intelligence services, those who receive a wage, pay their taxes, get a pension at the end of thirty years or whatever, aren’t “agents”. Rather, these are case officers or intelligence officers. An agent is the person the intelligence officer recruits on the inside, what the police might call an informant. The police vernacular is much more honest about all this. The police call their “agents” sources or informants and thus the people the police recruit are never really under any illusions as to their role. The people the security services recruit however, by being called “agents” rather than informants or sources, might be. The author teases this out brilliantly. When Jay is first recruited he has these images in his head from James Bond movies, he has this idea that he’s going to receive the special watch that fires poisonous darts or receive training in spy-craft. He doesn’t get how expendable he is. Throughout the narrative the tension builds as Jay begins to suspect the truth and his handler attempts to manage his expectations. Then there’s the tension tension between his handler who feels a duty of care to Jay and others in MI5 who see him as merely a tool.
Another aspect of this novel I liked, especially in the current climate, is how the author gets across how ordinary young Muslims can be radicalised through disenfranchisement and alienation, until they’re willing to commit the most heinous acts of terror. At no point does the author glamourise this process, or make excuses for those who cross the line from fundamentalism to violent jihad, but the portrayal of his characters does explain how this process might occur. While the ending, without divulging spoilers, is frighteningly plausible; indeed, a recent event made me think it might be scarily prescient.
East of Hounslow is an incredibly assured debut. It can be read on many different levels. If the reader prefers, it can be enjoyed as simply a thriller. But to my mind it is so much richer. This is a cutting critique the war on terror, the techniques the Security Services use to foil plots, the mistakes they make when doing so. It is also a commentary on the life experiences of young Muslims living the UK today, the tensions between their Britishness and their Islamic identities, the competing influences that pull at their psyches. However one chooses to enjoy this novel, it really is something special and should not be missed.
Apparently, we haven’t heard the last of Jay and indeed the book while wrapping itself up nicely is ripe for a sequel. I for one can’t wait to Jay’s next outing, for if it’s anything like East of Hounslow, it’ll be great.
James Pierson 5/5
East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rahman
HQ 9780008229573 pbk Nov 2017
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