Gary Nelson has a routine for the commute to his rather dull job in the city. Each day, he watches as a woman on the train applies her make up in a ritual he now knows by heart. He’s never dared to strike up a conversation . . . but maybe one day.
Then one evening, on the late train to Gipsy Hill, the woman invites him to take the empty seat beside her. Fiddling with her mascara, she holds up her mirror and Gary reads the words ‘HELP ME’ scrawled in sticky black letters on the glass.
From that moment, Gary’s life is turned on its head. He finds himself on the run from the Russian mafia, the FSB and even the Metropolitan Police – all because of what this mysterious young woman may have witnessed. In the race to find out the truth, Gary discovers that there is a lot more to her than meets the eye . . .
I’m not usually a fan of books about modern-day spies, the Russian mafia and oligarchs. But The Late Train to Gypsy Hill is all of that but with added laugh out loud humour. The debut novel from former Home Secretary Alan Johnson is slick, fast-paced, wicked and hilarious.
Poor Gary, our hapless hero, who is more like a reject from The Inbetweeners than a budding James Bond, is drawn into a race against time, when the young woman he has admired every day, invites him to take the empty seat beside her. Fiddling with her mascara, she holds up her mirror and Gary reads the words ‘HELP ME’.
Earlier on, a Russian documentary film-maker has been poisoned with Polonium-210 in the very posh Strand Hotel in London, but was he the intended victim? Or did the – as we now know Ukranian – woman from the train/waitress-on-the-run Arina Kaplin accidentally swap the mugs?
It took me ages to work out who was who amongst the Russians, so I’m not even going to try and name them. Suffice to say they consist of members of the FSB (formerly the KGB), the top mobsters, the stab-you-in-the-back henchmen and the thugs, though the lines are blurred much of the time. No-one trusts anyone and I don’t blame them. They are trying to scramble over each other’s bodies to get to the top of Russian criminal gang Krovnyye Bratya and they soon realise there is no loyalty amongst gangsters.
But what makes this so funny is the touches of comedy in what should be the most terrifying moments. The thugs attempt to abduct the wrong woman in a stolen Nissan Micra (I hope it’s the old two-door version for true comic effect), Arina escapes in a Parcelforce van (of course), and the final chase is like something out of a French farce.
I hope we will see a lot more from this author, already well-known as an MP, a writer of non-fiction and occasional TV personality. The Late Train to Gypsy Hill is one of my favourite books of 2021.
Many thanks to The Pigeonhole and to my fellow Pigeons for making this such an enjoyable read.
About the Author
Alan Arthur Johnson (born 17 May 1950) is a British politician who served as Secretary of State for the Home Department from 2009 to 2010 and Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer from 2010 to 2011. A member of the Labour Party, Johnson served as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Hull West and Hessle from 1997 until his retirement from politics in 2017.
His first book, This Boy, won the RSL Ondaatje Prize and the Orwell Prize in 2013. His second, Please Mister Postman, won the National Book Award for Autobiography of the Year in 2014. His third, The Long and Winding Road, was published in 2016 and won the Parliamentary Book Award for Best Memoir. The Late Train to Gypsy Hill is his first fiction novel.