Gritty romantic thriller Operation Bluebird by Harry Old is a real treat for crime lovers, examining in dramatic fashion how going undercover can lead to a blurring between what is real and fantasy.
Independent contemporary author Harry Old has struck gold again.
Already the millennial author – aged only 28 – has written two well-received novels, Not Yet Dead, Nearly (released in 2015), and Pigeons (2019).
Now, her third, Operation Bluebird, looks set to establish her name as a talented, multi-genre writer with a promising future in the crime thriller genre, if she ever wishes to revisit it again hereafter.
The novel follows Carrie Hart, a young cop who goes undercover as part of the titular police operation to infiltrate a notorious family of London gangsters, the Parks, looking to uncover the truth behind their spectacular wealth and a string of murders.
The Parks have crafted a respectable public image as refugees from North Korea who have hit it big in business and who are always first to donate to charity.
What the masses don’t know, however, is that the police have been trying to pin a whole host of despicable crimes on the family for more than a decade.
Along with her police partner, David, who poses as her older brother, Carrie infiltrates Paradise Casino, which the Park family run.
To do this, she poses as a dancer, Cara, and wins her way in by using her wits and feminine charms, which entice the eldest son, Yoonho.
His brothers are Han, the head of security and a nasty piece of work already suspected as a murderer; Soju, a Machiavellian figure whom all the family look up to; and Taehwan, whom all the family look down at, usually under a table where he is sleeping off his latest drug and alcohol binge.
Taehwan is an obvious target for Carrie and an initial display of kindness earns his trust, allowing her to being extracting information about his family and its shady activities.
What is clear from the start, though, is that both Carrie and David will need to delve deep into this world if they are to gain everything they need for a prosecution.
The challenge is that in this sort of environment, the boundaries between the real and false, good and bad, legal and illegal, can quickly become confused, if not careful.
Alas, Carrie’s confidence in herself to succeed is misplaced. Soon, as Cara, she is dabbling with cocaine, sleeping with the boss, and then entering into an ill-advised romantic relationship with Taehwan.
Every badly-judged action, irrespective of the intent, is a new chain weighing her down and securing her more tightly to the persona she is only meant to be playing.
Apart from her misplaced self-belief, Carrie’s big weakness is an addictive personality. The heady mix of intoxicants and the high-rolling high-life she’s enjoying as Cara are only fuelling this latent trait, leading to her become more unravelled as the tension escalates.
At times, both Carrie and David feel things are heating up too much and they recognise that they should quit the operation, but she is strangely attracted to the hedonistic criminal world while he is forced to violate all his moral standards in the line of work, causing cracks in his mental stability.
In the explosive climax, Carrie must choose where her loyalties lie, but she may be too far gone to redeem herself.
Either way, what was meant to be just another assignment will have a lasting effect on both Carrie and David as they try to piece their fractured selves back together.
Undoubtedly, the reader is kept hooked by the gripping plot on offer, but there are many other facets to the novel that makes it a firm recommendation.
Firstly, the characters all seem real. Carrie more than carries the story and her descent, and the inner turmoil this creates, is never not believable.
This scene at the beginning of the book, where she is learning about the criminal Mr Park, showcases the varying elements of this complicated character…
She was a little disappointed to find that he looked surprisingly normal. Of course, she had been in the force long enough to know that bad guys didn’t all have scars and fluffy cats, but she had sort of hoped that the leaders of a huge crime empire would look a bit more evil. Mr Park – the mastermind who had been eluding the police for a decade – just looked like someone’s dad, which she supposed he was. Yes, he looked like a rich banker dad who probably owned ten Rolexes and a Ferrari, but there was nothing sinister about his face. If anything, he just looked tired. She supposed that was all part of how he managed to function overtly as an innocent man.
Important, insightful scenes like this are dotted throughout the novel.
Another vivid episode is where she is running from her feelings, preferring instead to be numb.
“Numb is fine,” she said to the doctor, forcing the feelings back down her throat. They weren’t hers. “I don’t want to fix it. My job requires numbness.”
Old’s dialogue is smart and, like in any good drama, the scenes are nicely paced between faster and slower moments.
Secondly, the theme of addiction – both to drugs, such as with Taehwan, and a wealthy lifestyle, as with Carrie – pushes the story beyond the usual fare, being as much a thoughtful character study as an escapist adventure.
As we learn to our dismay, our hero (or anti-hero) heads down the wrong path, with heart-breaking repercussions, but you’ll certainly be on the right track if you pick up a copy of Operation Bluebird.