Helen Giltrow’s impressive debut novel, The Distance, is a rare thing: a pacey and shocking thriller with plot twists aplenty which also hits home with a lacing of disruptive juxtaposing. Somewhere in the northern reaches of London, there’s a prison. It purportedly operates an innovative and benign rehabilitation programme for the most egregious offenders. It is in fact run by a criminal gang whose currency is a calloused cruelty, a lethal blend of torture, intimidation and persecution. The impenetrable barriers surrounding the enclave invite the belief that this is some sort of special place, not quite real, a removal into another time and another place, not our London. But Giltrow allows her readers no such comfort blanket for around the prison, and in sight of the detainees, ‘free’ London goes on, normal, familiar, and safe, a constant reminder that beyond the novel and outside the prison, chaotic and gruesome mob rule is sometimes only a wire fence away.
The Distance dances, albeit occasionally with left foot-leading, on the murkier fringes of the world of Spooks and officially-sanctioned intrusion and assassination. It’s brave but not brash: the physical and psychological violence (and there’s a lot of it) is shockingly, if not surprisingly, real. This is not one for the faint-hearted, but there’s nothing gratuitous.
Charlotte Alton is a sort of modern ”M” on the wrong side of the tracks and re-imagined for a more cynical 21st century audience. Elegant, wealthy, clever and driven, she lacks Bond’s licence to kill but doesn’t let that bother her. She operates, largely vicariously through supreme mastery of technology, manipulating killers, players and victims alike, Subbuteo-style: the true play is almost always a distance away.
One of Charlotte’s alter egos comes out of retirement to engineer one of her contacts into the prison in order to kill an a women who may not even be there, with a cover-story which is perhaps the most improbable element of the whole charabang, but all does not go swimmingly; Charlotte herself has reservations, and an unresolved attraction to her chosen human weapon, Simon Johanssen, who himself has much to prove and too much morality to prove it unquestioningly. His undercover mission is impeded by the menacing Quinlan and his side-kick, the sub-human monster, Bryce, as well as multi-layered webs of deceptions, misjudgments and undisclosed connections which work their way with a dreadful fatalism towards not one but two showdowns, one of which has already happened. This may not be the most credible premise, nor the most original, but it is sound and in Giltrow’s very capable hands, it is crafted into a relentless, absorbing, seat of the pants thriller.
Charlotte is surrounded by a cast of characters, good and bad among them but it’s not always clear which is which. Questioning not just where the divide between good and evil lies but whether it even exists at all is one of the binding, and most rewarding, elements of the story: Giltrow constantly challenges the righteousness of motivation and isn’t afraid to let to allow the reader judgement. (The cast list is long and many of the players are lightly-drawn, so much so that it can be challenge to keep them all straight.)
The Distance was Wimbledon Village’s Book Group’s choice for May 2015. The consensus among group members was that it was an engrossing thriller at times scary and at times disruptive, but always an enjoyable read. A cut above the average thriller, providing plenty of substance for discussion, many members thought the novel would work very well, perhaps even better, as a film. Certain unresolved elements in the story, especially around the relationships between characters, left the distinct impression that there will be a Charlotte Alton 2 (which the author has since confirmed), and the group would be keen to read the next one.
I am most grateful to the author for providing a copy of her book for this review. I am even more delighted that Helen signed it! One to treasure, I think.
Helen Giltrow used to be a bookseller and has worked as a editor. She has been shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award and the Daily Telegraph’s Novel in a Year competition. The Distance is her first novel. It was first published in the UK by Orion Books in May 2014 (and in paperback in February 2015). It was published in the US by Doubleday in September 2014. You can follow Helen on Twitter – @helengiltrow.