The Twentieth Man by Tony Jones, Review: Taut political thriller

In The Twentieth Man Tony Jones’ narrative setup, thrilling historical plot, depth of characterisation and literary prose had me enthralled.

The Twentieth Man - Tony Jones - Book ReviewThe Twentieth Man Synopsis

Terrorism, politics and betrayals collide in this unputdownable, fast-paced thriller.

In September 1972, journalist Anna Rosen takes an early morning phone call from her boss at the ABC, telling her about two bombings in Sydney’s busy CBD. It’s the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history and Anna has no doubt which group is responsible for the carnage. She has been investigating the role of alleged war criminals in the globally active Ustasha movement.

High in the Austrian Alps, Marin Katich is one of twenty would-be revolutionaries who slip stealthily over the border into Yugoslavia on a mission planned and funded in Australia. It will have devastating consequences for all involved.

Soon the arrival in Australia of Yugoslavia’s prime minister will trigger the next move in a deadly international struggle.

Tony Jones, one of Australia’s most admired journalists, has written a brilliantly compelling thriller, taking us from the savage mountains of Yugoslavia to Canberra’s brutal yet covert power struggles in a novel that’s intelligent, informed and utterly suspenseful.

‘… a political thriller in the Robert Harris mould … Jones cleverly weaves fact and fiction – and has great fun painting ‘real’ characters like the wilful Lionel Murphy.’ – Jennifer Byrne, The Australian Women’s Weekly

‘An engaging political thriller … reminds us of the importance of investigative journalism in a democracy.’ – The Sydney Morning Herald

(Allen and Unwin, 2017)

Genre: Thriller, Historical, Mystery, Crime-Detective, Action-Adventure, Drama, Aussie Author

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I have always found fiction based on fact especially compelling, but with The Twentieth Man Tony Jones has set a new bar.

Despite no living memory of the early 1970s, I know enough about the time period to admire this depiction’s authenticity and how skilfully Jones’ has interwoven real and fictional characters. It was a delight to read of younger versions of real political journalists that went on to become highly-respected household-names.

Having since read up just a little more on the historical background, I think many would be surprised at the fact-to-fiction ratio. As they say, history is so often stranger than fiction. The level of cowboy behaviour (however well-intentioned), corruption and brutality is galling, and thus enthralling reading.

But the real masterstroke is Jones’ decision to explore this underworld predominantly from the perspective of a feisty female investigative journalist. And, one with personal ties and access to several key players in that geopolitical arena. This, in the context of pervasive sexism in what was a male-dominated field, is what makes The Twentieth Man intensely compelling. That, and an alternate narrative, of one deemed to pose a threat (the hunter being hunted), that is more action-packed but no less cerebral.

Taut plotting & evocative prose

Jones conveys the brutality of historical events and chilling fervour of the combatants with perceptive and thought-provoking prose.

The man was built for betrayal, designed to fail under pressure like fuse wire.

I admired the depth of characterisation achieved with references to the natural environment.

There was a causeway over a river and then for a long time nothing but bush on either side of the road. As she was drawn into it, Anna had the familiar sense of dissonance. The green density of undifferentiated eucalypts as they crowded the narrow strip of road seemed threatening. She felt as though the vast sameness might swallow her up, erupt into flames and burn her existence away like an impurity in a forge.

There are certainly detail-laden passages within The Twentieth Man; the political banter perhaps not being to everyone’s tastes. But the setup, variation and pacing of the novel overall had me enthralled. And, with the pitch-perfect conclusion, Jones both satisfies and leaves readers eager for more.

Tony Jones’ The Twentieth Man is a valuable reminder of the lessons history teaches us, served up in a fast-paced political and action thriller.

I now look forward to reading the recently released sequel, In Darkness Visible.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5

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This review counts towards my participation in the Aussie Author Challenge 2020.

Source: Allen & Unwin

More compelling historical thrillers:
The War Widow by Tara Moss  /  The Burning Island by Jock Serong  /  The Doctor of Aleppo by Dan Mayland  /  People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks  /  Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

About the Author, Tony Jones

Tony Jones was still at school when Lionel Murphy raided ASIO. After an ABC cadetship, he joined Four Corners as a reporter in 1985. In 1986, he went to Dateline at SBS. He subsequently was an ABC foreign correspondent, for a time in London and later in Washington. Inter alia, he covered the war crimes in Bosnia. He hosts Q & A on Monday nights and is married to Sarah Ferguson, a fellow ABC journalist. The Twentieth Man is his debut novel. In Darkness Visible (the sequel) was released in November 2019.