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Ascension by Oliver Harris: Breaking the crime fiction mould

Oliver Harris has retired his mesmerising bad-boy copper Nick Belsey… and his step into the unknown breathes thrilling life into an ex-pat community in the south Atlantic.

There’s a formula to much modern crime writing. This formula is so successful it’s no wonder so many new authors adopt it and older hands stick with it.

This is to write a long series of books based on the same central character, usually with a quirky personality and something of a maverick reputation – a disgraced detective, an alcoholic journalist, a shoestring private investigator.

Over the series the character and their backstory are developed, allowing the faithful reader to form an increasingly intimate attachment, which keeps them coming back for more. At its best – like, say, Rebus or Poirot – this can be a lifelong pleasure. In lesser hands, though, it means few shocks and few surprises, and not much variation in the plots either. Still, there’s money to be made, so why take a risk.

Both Oliver Harris and Joseph Knox, arguably the twin shining talents of the new generation of English crime writers, set off down this path. Harris had his mesmerising bad-boy copper Nick Belsey, who boozed and pill-popped his way around the streets, towers and sewers of London. Knox had Aidan Waits, who did much the same in Manchester, squaring up to the city’s crime and drug lords. These characters were given three brilliant, page-turning novels each, and seemed set for the long haul.

Then it stopped. Independently of one another, Harris and Knox decided to retire their heroes and strike out in new directions. Harris moved into the world of the techno-thriller with A Shadow Intelligence, creating in the process a new main man, the MI6 agent Elliot Kane. His new book, Ascension, is the second Kane story, and it is a corker.

Kane finds himself dispatched to the remote British Overseas Territory of Ascension Island, or as Harris puts it, “one of Her Majesty’s rocks in the middle of nowhere”. Used as a high-tech listening post by the Brits and the Americans, Ascension is soon to be a home to a new fibre-optic cable linking Africa and South America, which promises to be a treasure trove of international secrets. Britain’s spymasters are desperate to hack in.

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It is not simple, of course. The previous agent on the grim, ex-volcanic island has killed himself, and there are further tales of sudden disappearances. Kane finds Ascension’s 800 souls living a very strange life on their grey rock, as he uncovers conspiracies within conspiracies. Harris expertly keeps the plates spinning while breathing thrilling life into the ex-pat community and its moon-surface existence.

Ascension by Oliver Harris is out on July 15 (Little, Brown, £18.99)

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