The Silent Oligarch, Christopher Morgan Jones (Penguin Press, 2012 {Penguin Audio, Narrator: Jason Culp})

Grade: Β — Fantastic book within the genre, probably worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that may not appeal to individuals who are not fans of a given genre.

In brief:

The Silent Oligarch is the debut novel by Christopher Morgan Jones.  Loosely based on events that occurred to him and his colleagues while working in the world of corporate intelligence, it is a fascinating tale of espionage and money laundering.  The book is neither a Spy Thriller, nor a Mystery, but an Espionage novel of the highest caliber that I recommend without reservation. 

Setting:

Modern Europe (1998-2009 and after), with some scenes in some of the Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union and one scene in the Caymans (considering the topic, there had to be really).

In Depth:

One never knows what to expect when one is sent a book by a new author, and I started with a skeptical eye.  This inherent skepticism was added to when I read its blip-vert and saw it defined as Espionage novel.  Most of so-called Espionage Novels are really just mundane Spy-Thrillers.  This book, however, was anything but.  It was a grippingly tense tale of money laundering which was neither a Mystery[1] nor Thriller[2], but a true character driven story about modern espionage. 

To that end, one should be prepared for a slow steady pace that builds in intrigue and empathy until one cannot put it down.  The book starts with a prologue in the third person present tense, which is a bold move for a first novel.  Most novels in English are told in the third person past tense, and as a result, books in the present tense often sound odd to the reader (or in this case, listener). Jones manages to pull it off, however, partially because by the beginning of the first chapter, the book returns to the standard third person past tense and sticks to it throughout. 

Beyond that, the story systematically switches between two points-of-view throughout: that of Ben Webster (the investigator), and that of Richard Lock (the money launderer). These characters are strong and fascinating, and Jones’ writing shines as he gradually builds sympathy for even the most un sympathetic of characters. It takes a lot of skill to build compassion with a corporate spy and a money launderer, but by a third of the way through the novel one is totally invested in them. 

Penguin's Press Paage Including Interview with Christopher Morgan Jones

What is more, Jones manages to build tension despite the fact that there is a near-complete reveal throughout the story.  The two POV characters are on opposite sides of the conflict, so one has pretty clear idea of what is going on behind the scenes throughout. Even so, the details of how the different schemes work, how the plot will tie it together, and how the characters will face the growing conflict is the core of the tale keeps one turning pages throughout. 

What is more, Jones manages to avoid any of the cheap tricks that ruin so many mysteries, spy novels and espionage tales.[3]  In fact, quite the opposite, you as the reader know more than either POV characters.

Perhaps best of all, is the element of realism in the conclusion that is perfectly balanced with a sense of closure.  One does not get a total reveal of all questions raised through the book, but at the end of the novel one feels a sense of satisfaction.  At the end, the story is done, the character arcs complete and reader content at having read a well crafted book. 

I highly recommend this to anyone who likes tales of espionage of the John LeCarré school, and eagerly anticipate Jones’ next book. 

Notes about the Audio Edition:

I must admit that I was initially confused by Penguin Audio’s use of Jason Culp as a narrator for this story.  He has a good voice, and a does a superb job, but he is very American.  This is a British Book, by a British Author about an Englishman and a Dutchman who grew up in England.  So with so many fine British actors out there… why a Yank?

By midway through the novel, however, Culp’s skill in accents had shown through. He is the rare American who can actually do a realistic British accent,[4] and what is more, he can do it well enough that different characters actually sound like different characters, with subtlety in their voices rather than regional accents making them stand out.  His Russian and other accents aren’t bad either and in short order one forgets about the nationality of the reader and is intent on the content of the book. 

Indeed, Culp manages to do that most crucial of things while narrating a novel: he lets the text speak for itself.  His style is subdued and while he clearly gives individual identity to each character he reads in the book, he does not let his inner thespian take over.  As a result, one has an excellent “read” as one listens to his narration. 


[1] One immediately knows who is doing what, and while there are some mysteries to be answered, it is in no way a who-dunnit type of tale.

[2] While there is action that occurs in this book, there are no car chases, gun battles, etc.  It tells a tense tale ala LeCarré or Church, not an action packed adventure of the Flemming or Ludlum school.

[3] E.g. The hero (whose Point-of-view you’ve been in the whole time) looks at a piece of paper that tells you the answer of the mystery, or looks behind a hedge and sees the solution but you as the reader are not told what they learn except at the end of the story.

My favorite of these agonizing elements is in Tom Clancy‘s The Hunt for Red October where Jack Ryan is talking to someone (the SSN Commander, the head of the CIA… I can’t remember, someone) and comes up with a plan of action, and rather than telling it to them, he writes it down on a piece of paper which we are not shown as the reader.  That’s bad enough in a movie, but in a book?  REALLY?  In any case, that NEVER happens in this book. 

[4] Oh there are lots of Americans who think they can do a British accent, and visa versa, but very very few can.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
This entry was posted in Espionage, Stand Alone Novel, Strong Characters, Thoughtful, Thoughtful Espionage Tale, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Silent Oligarch, Christopher Morgan Jones (Penguin Press, 2012 {Penguin Audio, Narrator: Jason Culp})

  1. My next read; looking forward.

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