I’m always excited to find a new spy novel series by an author that does something fresh in the genre. I was lucky enough to have the pleasure of reading one such series recently. Thanks to the recommendation of the excellent Spybrary discussion group, I listened to the audiobook for Khurrum Rahman’s debut novel East of Hounslow, followed quickly by his second book Homegrown Hero.
The series follows Javid “Jay” Qasim, a small-time drug dealer in Hounslow, a heavily Pakistani area in the west of London. When we meet Jay he is coasting on his charm, living with his mom and blowing the money he’s saved through dealing on a brand new BMW. What Jay doesn’t realize is that MI5 have their eyes on him and soon his life will be turned upside down in ways he never would have imagined. Due to conniving on MI5’s part and a stupid decision combined with a sense of duty on Jay’s, he’s soon an asset for the Security Services doing something he is utterly unprepared for – going undercover to infiltrate a potential terrorist cell.
Rahman does an expert job at developing Jay from what could easily have been a one note character into someone believably conflicted about what he is being asked to do. He grows closer to the members of the cell, including his childhood friend Parvez as he is required to worm his way into their good graces. He begins to discover the importance and beauty of his Muslim faith and is faced with the callus response that the western world has for those people it bombs thousands of miles away from the safety of their homes. At the same time as he is growing closer to his supposed enemies, Jay’s lifeline, his MI5 handler, stays distant and rarely interacts with him aside from the occasional pat on the head. For as much as Jay abhors what is being planned, he also can’t deny the very real racism present in London that makes it easier for others, especially those younger or looking for greater meaning to see violence as the answer. Jay’s dilemma becomes more urgent as the attack looms closer and he needs to figure out whether he can find a way to use his greatest asset, his ability to talk his way into and out of trouble, to keep it from happening.
While the above may make this sound very heavy, it’s not. Jay is funny and immediately likable. You root for him to make it through the wringer he’s being squeezed through. For Americans, I strongly recommend listening to the audiobook. Narrator Waleed Akhtar does a wonderful job bringing Jay to life. I listened to the book while out running and by the time I got close to the end I was listening to it whether running or not. That’s always the sign of a good book. The novel’s climax is thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.
I switched to a hard copy for the sequel, Homegrown Hero, which switches up the format to offer an even more interesting insight into both Jay and a new character that’s introduced, Imran “Imy” Siddiqui. The book picks up where the first ended and Rahman has fun extricating himself from the corner he painted himself into with East of Hounslow’s cliffhanger.
When we meet back up with Jay he is still dealing with the fall out of his career as an MI5 asset and an attempted terrorist attack. He’s trying to walk away from that life and build a new one. He’s found new friends and a bland 9 to 5 job but the choices of his past aren’t quite done with him yet. One of the leaders of the terrorist organization Jay shutdown is still a bit miffed over his actions and issues a fatwa on him. Add in the drug kingpin Jay got thrown in jail who’s now sprung and Jay’s life is about to get much more complicated.
Imy is in many ways the opposite of Jay. Whereas Jay had what amounted to a pretty cushioned upbringing, Imy was only 12 when he saw his family killed in Afghanistan. He was raised by the man who turned up to help him, Pathaan, a stone cold killer who trained kids to become sleeper agents in the western world. Pathaan shows up in London to tell Imy that his time for action has arrived and he’s to carry out the fatwa. However, Imy has grown in his time in London changed by the love freely given by his aunt as well as his girlfriend and her five year old son who looks at him as his father. All three see him as the man he’s become and not the damaged boy he used to be.
Throughout the book we flip between the first person perspectives of Jay and Imy with the reader unsure what Imy is capable of doing in order to keep the new life he has found. Jay and Imy are great characters and Rahman smoothly transitions back and forth between their stories until they finally come crashing together in a tense finale.
While gunplay and terrorist attacks get the prime spot on the back cover, what isn’t mentioned but there in abundance are snapshots of life in Hounslow. We see people going to the mosque, the nosy neighbors, visits to the community center, parents arranging marriages, the food. Rahman creates the community in your mind and it feels real and alive. By the time you’re done reading these books, you’ll think you’ve visited and know the folks that live there. Rahman also goes deeper in this book on the everyday racism in the world and how quickly people can be turned to an “us vs. them” mindset.
The series has been billed as a trilogy and certainly does seem to be taking Jay on quite the story arc. The third book in the series Ride or Die comes out on July 9th and US readers can look for hard copies of the first book in bookstores in late July or the audiobooks and Kindle editions for the first two books are already available. After the cliffhanger of the second book, I’m eager to see what Rahman has planned for Jay next.