Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Boy in MI6, by Elizabeth Junner McLaughlin

  "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent." On March 5th, 1946 Sir Winston Churchill made his immortal statement at Westminster College and woke the western world to an awareness of the hidden but deadly battles between the proponents of Communism in the east and the supporters of Democracy in the west after the recent hard-won freedom from the quest for world dominance by the Nazis and Imperial Japan. The freedom of speech, action, and movement enjoyed in the west was still endangered by Joseph Stalin and his Kremlin henchmen.

     While the free world had ceased from open warfare, it was now entrenched in the equally deadly Cold War, made all the more dangerous because it was so clandestine
            When Mikhail Gorbachev appeared on the Russian scene he set in motion a transparency of government unknown since the murders and overthrow of the Romanovs. Under what he termed 'Glasnost' Russia became much more open to the west. The Berlin Wall fell in November, 1989, and with the dissolution of the Soviet States, it appeared that the West’s worries about megalomaniacs bent on seizing total power and world government were over. 

But are they?  Anthony Horowitz' Alex Rider series would have it otherwise. The series' protagonist, Alex Rider, finds himself embroiled in one hair-raising adventure after another, depending on whatever is the current threat to freedom. This series of action books has been remarkably successful in coaxing reluctant readers to keep asking for more.

 When the police turn up on your doorstep at three in the morning, it is never good news. The first ring of the doorbell woke up fourteen-year-old Alex Rider; as soon as he heard the policemen speaking in 'funeral voices' to Jack, the American girl who lived with them and cooked for Alex when his uncle was away, he knew Ian Rider was dead.

Ian - he hated the word uncle - had raised Alex since he was a few weeks old, after his parents had been killed in a plane crash. He was a quiet man, who dressed beautifully, never smoked, and enjoyed good food and wine. Superbly fit himself, he made sure Alex was proficient in as many athletic pursuits as possible. Ian enrolled Alex in karate classes, took him on skiing, climbing and boating holidays in exotic locations. In short, he was the uncle any boy would have delighted in. Yet always the man remained an enigma to Alex. He had no girlfriends; he didn't seem to have any friends at all, and Alex had never been inside Ian's room, not even when he was away, since the door was kept locked at all times.

The police said Ian wasn't wearing a seat-belt when he was involved in a head-on collision at a roundabout. Alex knew this couldn't possibly be true; his uncle was ultra-particular about safety, and had a thing about seat-belts. In any case, it is impossible to have a head-on at a roundabout unless someone is going the wrong way…

Ian had worked for the Royal & General bank as Overseas Finance Manager, and was away on bank business more often than he was home. Sometimes he returned with injuries and bruises, for which he always had a plausible explanation.
     At the funeral Crawley, the bank’s Personnel Officer, pointed out Alan Blunt. ”That’s the Bank Chairman,” he told Alex. Grey hair, grey eyes, grey clothes, everything about the man was grey. Alex disliked him on sight. Later as Blunt strode to his car when the funeral was over, Alex spotted the chauffeur carried a gun inside his jacket. Catching Blunt's eye on him, Alex realized the Chairman knew he had seen his driver's gun.
        Alex and Jack elected to walk home after the funeral. As they turned into their street, he saw there was a removal van outside Ian's house; it had the name STRYKER & SON painted on the side. That was all Alex had time to note before the van shot off. Inside the house, Alex saw that a letter which had previously been on the hall table was now lying on the floor. While Jack went to the kitchen, Alex hastened upstairs to check on Ian's room. The door had been unlocked. Going in, Alex found the room empty – desk drawers, shelves, clothes cupboards – everything of Ian Rider was gone, as if he had never existed.
     Sure there was something fishy about Ian's death, Alex tracked down Stryker's and found it was a breaker's yard. There he found Ian's car, riddled with bullet holes along the driver's side. Alex crawled inside to check for any clues but he was spotted and had a narrow escape from his own death right there.

            Summoned to Blunt's office to hear the details of Ian's will, Alex discovered the bank was only a front for the office of Britain's secret service, MI6. Alan Blunt was the Chief Executive of the Special Operations division, and Ian Rider had been one of their best men. He was gunned down by a Russian assassin, Yassen Gregorovich, who had been hired by one Herold Sayle. A genius in computer technology, a multi-billionaire, and friends with the Prime Minister, Sayle had developed a state-of-the-art computer, Stormbreaker, which he planned to distribute to every British school. The computers were to be activated at the precise moment the Prime Minister activates the one donated to the Science Museum. However, Mr. Sayle was not quite the philanthropist he appeared to be; and just before he was murdered Ian Rider had been close to uncovering Sayle's real purpose in delivering the Stormbreakers.   

      Blunt and his deputy,Mrs. Jones, coerce Alex to help M16 in their efforts to defeat Sayle. 
     At first Alex was quite keen, since he thought he would be given weapons like James Bond. Even Blunt considered him too young for lethal weapons, but at Mrs. Jones’ insistence, he did have Alex equipped with 'Bond-type toys' before he was despatched to a boarding school in Cornwall. This was where MI6 believed Sayle had his headquarters.
     To say any more would be to spoil the story! Suffice to say there is lots of action, suspense, and danger for Alex. 

The second book in the series, Point Blanc, sees our hero off to the Alps. Alex had exposed a drug dealer who was touting merchandise at his school. Unfortunately, in doing so he caused some damage to the brand new police conference centre. To keep him out of jail, MI6 stepped in with a new assignment – attend a school for the troubled sons of multimillionaires. This school was run by a South African scientist at a remote location in the French Alps. Apparently, when the boys returned on their first vacation from the school they were models of good behaviour. Two of the fathers had died in mysterious accidents after trying to investigate the too-sudden turnaround in their sons’ behaviour. One was an American Electronics multimillionaire, and the other a Russian General, ex-KGB and one of the most powerful men in the world. Alex was told find out what is being done to turn rebellious, unruly boys into childish versions of the Stepford Wives.

Skeleton Key is the name given a fictional island off Cuba and the setting for the third book in the series. The story begins with General Alexei Sarov purchasing uranium, then sending the men who delivered it to their deaths.
Meanwhile, in London, Alex was despatched to Wimbledon in the guise of a ball boy, taxed with finding out about suspected match fixing. In self-defence, he kills a Chinese Triad gang member, so for his own safety MI6 send him to Skeleton Key with two CIA agents, who are to pose as his parents. The agents are most unhappy at having Alex thrust upon them, and refuse to give him any indication why they are on Skeleton Key, even when he has saved the life of one agent.
Eventually Alex suspects Sarov is preparing to launch a nuclear bomb and they are hunting for evidence and information. Grudgingly, the agents admit both CIA and MI6 know that Sarov and his minion, Conrad, are enemies of freedom who seek the return of communism and one world government. They were well aware Sarov has the makings of a huge nuclear bomb. In the end, after many twists and turns, all the adults who had been with him having been killed Alex is the only one left, who can foil their evil intentions. 

The fourth book, Eagle Strike, is set in the French Riviera where Alex was on vacation with Sabina
and her parents, who had a holiday home there. She was the girl he met while a ball boy at Wimbledon. Alex encounters Yassen Gregorovich, the assassin who killed Ian Rider. So when the holiday house explodes, supposedly due to a gas leak, Alex suspects Gregorovich. He later meets a photographer who tells him Sabina’s father was investigating a mad pop star, Cray, and that Gregorovich is working for Cray. Alex called M16 to alert them, but for once Alan Blunt is not interested in recruiting his help. For some strange reason – political expediency, he said – Blunt is unwilling to touch Cray.  Then Gregorovich is himself killed by Cray. While he lies dying, he tells Alex that his father, John Rider, was also an assassin. Alex must have shown disbelief for Gregorovich says if he doesn’t believe him, Alex should search for something called Scorpia. To do this, he will have to go to Venice. In the meantime, Alex and Sabina have to stop Cray somehow.

In the fifth book, aptly named Scorpia, Alex lucks in to a school trip to Italy, and of course, Venice. This is his chance to find out the truth about his parents. This time, the evil antagonist is a woman, a beautiful and very wealthy American widow who hates America and Britain and is out to totally destroy both. One unintentionally funny episode is when the tiger skin rug reveals itself to be a real, live, and hungry Siberian Tiger which is intent on using Alex as an hors d’oeuvre.
Was his father truly an assassin? If he was, what did that make him? Alex is worried and confused, but all the more determined, come hell or high water (he is in Venice) to find out.
To conclude this blog I asked a young reader for his comments on the series. Here's what he wrote in reply:

'I found the books to be action-packed, easy reading page turners. Alex Rider is a likeable character, and the books have interesting story lines. However I found that after the first three books the beginnings became too repetitive. 
Alex was constantly saying that he wanted to quit being an agent, yet time after time he would somehow be convinced to go on another mission. I didn't like the fact that whenever the main character got into a very dangerous situation I knew that he was always going to make it out alive. I found that because Alex was basically the only character that was constantly in the story I knew nothing too terrible would happen to him.
I have nine of the books, and honestly I got bored because the series was too long. It would have been better if it ended at five or six books. But I do recommend the books.'



Just one more cover! Last I read, #17 was on the way, at readers' requests.

1 comment:

  1. I've certainly enjoyed the Alex Rider books I've read.