The Vicar: A Novel of Espionage
- By A.J. Chambers
- Blackstone Publishing
- 300 pp.
- Reviewed by Lawrence De Maria
- November 23, 2023
An action-packed, implausibly over-the-top MI5 thriller.
A.J. Chambers’ The Vicar introduces us to Terry Nolan, an MI5 operative in Boston whose cover is blown when assassins try to ice him on his houseboat. The would-be killers, Irish terrorists, are apparently determined to eliminate Nolan, the vicar of the book’s title. He runs a string of acolytes whom he can no longer contact, presumably because they’re all pushing up daisies.
Nolan, too, would be on the wrong side of the sod had he not been blessed with more lives than a cat. I should note here that he has officially been dead for 30 years. My math is a little hazy, but unless he was running ops from his crib, that means he should be collecting Social Security by now. (As a Brit, he’s probably been collecting the U.K.’s version since the crib.)
Anyway, the Boston boat attack wasn’t Nolan’s first rodeo, if you don’t mind me mixing locales. (Actually, I don’t recall anything in the novel involving horses or steers, but there are so many violent encounters here, I may have missed a few.) Nolan heads to New York to locate his last remaining agent, a woman named Shae. He’s obviously fond of her, having personally recruited her years earlier. Instead, he finds Kristen, her girlfriend.
After a gunfight (not with each other), they set out to find and save Shae. Naturally, Nolan, a betrayed and suspicious spook, has his doubts about Kristen. Of course, that’s maybe just his age showing. Older folks are easily scammed, so they’re leery of many things. But Kristen proves useful and is rarely injured, which is more than I can say for Nolan, who seems to get hurt every other page. And not creaky-hurt like a typical fall-in-the-shower senior. Guns, explosives, you name it.
He soon learns that some of Britain’s major cities are targets of dirty bombs, which can kill thousands of innocent people who haven’t even angered Vladimir Putin. (Somehow, Vlad the Nasty doesn’t make an appearance in The Vicar, which surprised me).
Brought in from the cold by the head of MI5, Nolan pulls out all his clandestine stops to find Shae and save his country. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say, Nolan’s efforts are not in vain, despite the fact that when he catches up with the bad guys, his past also catches up with him.
I’ve read some of the glowing pre-publication reviews of The Vicar by fellow thriller authors, who compare Chambers to Le Carré, Forsyth, Clancy, Silva, and others. I’ll concede that he can write, particularly when there’s violence involved. But I found all the shootouts and other mayhem to be — pardon the pun — overkill, especially for a super-spy hero who should be over the hill.
The author spent much of his 1980s military service in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, so his hatred of the IRA and Irish terrorists is genuine, but it’s far too obsessive here. His experiences undoubtedly colored his perception and writing. I also found many of the scenes involving American police, special forces, and crooked politicians unbelievable. I lost track of the body count.
As for the ending? Well, when all the chickens finally come home to roost, it’s to a bigger barn than Le Carré, Forsyth, Clancy, or Silva ever created. They spun fanciful yarns, yes, but they were vaguely believable.
After the military, Chambers became a chef, which may explain why so much — too much — of the book is devoted to between-gunplay meals. Nolan eats and drinks a lot for a man his age, and all the product placement is annoying. I don’t read thrillers to learn about the best kitchen equipment. Still, the author isn’t afraid to describe every meal, no matter how small:
“He sat down across the table from her, poured himself a large coffee, and helped himself to a piece of New York cheesecake with a raspberry compote.”
Speaking of cheesecake, there’s no real sex in the novel, except for the implied carnal relationship between Shae and Kristen. For his part, super-agent Nolan doesn’t get any nookie. Perhaps he’s too old.
Lawrence De Maria, who has written more than 30 of his own thrillers, put on 10 pounds after reading about all the meals in The Vicar.