tue 28/05/2024

Sam Bourne: To Kill the Truth review - taut thriller of big ideas | reviews, news & interviews

Sam Bourne: To Kill the Truth review - taut thriller of big ideas

Sam Bourne: To Kill the Truth review - taut thriller of big ideas

Maggie Costello is back, fighting an alt-right conspiracy to reprogramme history

Sam Bourne AKA Jonathan Freedland: plunging us into the here and nowPhilippa Gedge

Great libraries burning, historians murdered: someone somewhere is removing the past by obliterating the ways the world remembers. Erasing the histories of slavery and the Holocaust, of blacks and Jews, is just the beginning.

The premise of Sam Bourne’s thrilling novel is the existence of a conspiracy to annihilate all the evidence of historic atrocities through the millennia. Books, of course, must go, and in a neat twist even the biggest book distribution centres, Amazon included, are targeted. Bourne’s great gift is to take reality and give it a good shove, a what if? that we are persuaded to believe.

In To Kill the Truth, our transplanted Dubliner, smart and sassy Maggie Costello, who was at the heart of Bourne’s prescient To Kill the President (2017), is the investigating heroine even as her own professional life implodes. Bourne’s trademark lapidary prose, and the compression of events into less than a week are here. The avowed aim of the Bookburner manifesto, deliberately leaked to the FBI, is the obliteration of history to return the world to an Edenic state of ignorance. The stakes are staggeringly high.

Sam Bourne To Kill the TruthThe totally compelling basis of To Tell the Truth is the pervasive and persuasive nature of fake news. The idea is carried to its logical conclusion: if you destroy all the evidence, the witnesses to the past – both documents and people – you can make the narrative whatever you choose and escape any credible challenges to your version. The framing device is a charismatic historian William Keane, who once taught at Stanford, and now in Charlottesville, Virginia has brought a court case to prove that slavery did not exist. The mantra of his supporters is, Don’t know, don’t care/Nothing’s happened, nothing’s there.

This novel is a fiction but, as the author tells us, it is a book about truth rooted in fact. The arguments of some of the alt-right are presented eloquently, notably by Crawford “Mac” McNamara, a Steve Bannon figure who is horribly sincere and eloquent, as is his delight in having American voters simply indifferent or, even more helpfully, confused. The set scene at the heart of the narrative is a conversation between Maggie and Mac.

Along the way we learn about the fictional “Alexandria Group”, a dozen of the greatest libraries in the world, named after the great Egyptian library which, mythology suggests, was burnt down several millennia ago; actually it dwindled to nothing. From the Bodleian and the British Library to the University of Virginia with its historic holdings on the history of slavery, they become the targets of the shadowy conspirators. In the course of the story, 11 of them are burnt down in an incredibly sophisticated computer attack that also disables security and takes over command of the electrical and electronic systems of the buildings. Several of the fires and how they were caused are described in mesmerising detail, while the digital back-ups for the libraries’ contents are hacked and destroyed, too. The destruction of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem – not exactly a library but the record of the Holocaust – is thrown in for good measure.

Its nuggets of truth are stranger than fiction

These hacker geniuses effectively turn the libraries’ very sophisticated technological protection against them: they are destroyed, so to speak, by themselves. At the Bodleian the night watchmen do not need to make their rounds since they watch from screens, but their screens – hacked – show nothing. The destruction is minuted second by second, and underlying it is a not-so-subtle plea that our trusting reliance on the wonders of technology imperils far more than we understand.

There are individual murders around the world, too: historians and the witnesses and survivors of the Holocaust and recent genocides, from the Balkans to Rwanda. Even Google is hacked. The power of technology for good and terrible ill is a theme, and we are left guessing until near the end as to whether one computer genius community tucked away in the woods of Montana are goodies or baddies. The internet destruction of Maggie's reputation via fake sex tapes and fake e-mails is also all too plausible.

Bourne’s understanding of the machinations and methods of Washington DC and how the government works gives To Kill the Truth a gloss of authenticity. However twisted, ideology motivates the villains, as does the worldview of our heroine. Maggie is an appealingly flawed heroine, the compulsively controlling daughter of an alcoholic father: her ability to somehow survive both physical peril and mental stress, not to mention human obstacles, is a constant. Connections and coincidences keep changing the pattern and plot that she is discovering, but she makes sense of it all, at vast personal cost...

Bourne’s great gift is to skilfully and subtly use exaggeration to make our current situation in our mad world even more real, even at times understandable. To Kill the Truth is page-turning entertainment, where you identify and empathise with some of the characters, enjoy the geographical changes and descriptions of Washington power games, the cultural shifts between people of varying backgrounds which painlessly impart a great deal of information. Its nuggets of truth are stranger than fiction. Bourne plunges us into the here and now to make us think not only of the past, but how the ignorance of history imperils both present and future.

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