David Jarvis' 'Collation Unit' is a slow burning novel with plenty of humour and a satisfying end
I often find that slow burners are the most enjoyable novels, embedding you comfortably into the world of those inhabiting the pages, and allowing you to become emotionally attached to them. As a result, you care deeply for them when the plot unfolds and the foot hits the pedal towards the crux of the story.
The Collation Unit is just such a read... a cracking little story, full of warmth and humour, that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere fast but is fun to pick up anyway, before helter skeltering to a gripping finale.
Set in Thatcher’s Britain during the Falklands War of the early 1980s, this spy story follows the workings and rivalry of two Government units – the established Secret Service and the ambitious Collation Unit.
As the action switches between Cheltenham, London, Europe and the Middle East, two plots unfold and the most unlikely of heroes is drawn into one of them.
The bumbling, harmlessly irritating Mark Tanner – known as Empty after his initials – is one of the most joyous anti-heroes ever consigned to the written word. An irrigation engineer, he only ends up in Saudi Arabia by fate as his uninsured house burned down and he has to make a pretty packet to get his family back on an even keel.
But as the Collation Unit tries to match GCHQ’s great efforts in the Falklands by tracking a suspicious boat in the Middle East, another main character in the book –Jack Pennington – enrols Empty into a bit of spying work, and soon our hapless hero’s life unfurls.
Things aren’t going too great for Jack, who is trying to hide an affair from his spy unit and his wife, but compared to Empty, his life is a doddle.
Our hero, whose awful jokes and crass observations kill most of his conversations before they even get going, survives a murder attempt, is attacked by a child with a fork, accidentally uncovers a cannabis grow, steals a passport, disguises himself first as an Arab woman and then takes the guise of a disabled and deaf man as he tries to evade Saudi retribution for his spying misdemeanours.
At times during his adventures we switch to other countries and characters,where other plots are unfolding. Secret Service head Sir Cecil and the unnamed ‘foreign secretary’ enjoy scenes reminiscent of eighties sitcom ‘Yes (Prime) Minister’, Basil and Julian are exactly the kind of ‘never grown up’ public schoolboys many of us suspect make their money in Whitehall, and we meet plenty of other interesting characters along the way too.
If I have just one tiny criticism though,I think Jarvis ramps up the humour a bit too much towards the end. There’s laughter throughout this book and it doesn’t need an overload as we reach an otherwise satisfying conclusion.