“Black Water” by Louise Doughty – a novel about one man and his life in private security and espionage

Black Water by Louise Doughty is a thriller about an international private security firm and especially its operative now going by the name of John Harper and living in Indonesia. Once upon a time John Harper was Nicholas, born during the war in an internment camp with an Indonesian mother and a Dutch heritage. Nicholas grows up displaced and without many attachments and is present during the violent political unrest in 1965 and 1998 (about which I knew nothing but I found that I didn’t need the knowledge to appreciate the book). His life story is told alongside the story of the present day and the events that unfold.

This book starts with Harper living remotely in Indonesia scared that his ex-employer may wish to kill him because of what has recently happened. He doesn’t know if he’s being paranoid or realistic. He then meets and becomes involved with a woman living locally. Suddenly he sees a future for himself but isn’t sure if others will allow that to him.

The start of this book is slow and it isn’t until you get quite a way in that you understand the sort of work that Harper has been doing. I was tempted to abandon it during the early stages but when I battled on a bit I was gripped by the slow revelation of Harper’s life and what his job entailed. Harper never fitted in and never felt he belonged and never seemed to be happy. He seemed almost without conscience in his working life and did some horrible things because he was told to. His new relationship and leaving his job seem to offer him the opportunity to make a fresh start but he is plagued with the thought that he will not be allowed to do so.

I wasn’t completely gripped by this story although I did find the plot interesting. I think that the book takes too long to make its revelations and the huge thing that haunts Harper’s life was only made clear near the end, by which time I had guessed it anyway. The shadowy world of private security companies and undercover operatives is all rather sordid and grubby but I suspect rather accurate (the title of the book is relevant here I feel in pointing to the best known real world equivalent). A lot of the plot is unresolved and people and events drift in and out of the narrative – it is tightly plotted but the reader often feels that they don’t know what is going on.

If I were awarding stars this earns three. It is a well put together book and cleverly done but it didn’t always work for me and overall I can’t say that I greatly enjoyed it.

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