Review: Anthrax Island

DL Marshall – Anthrax Island

Published by Canelo, paperback £8.99. I received a proof copy of the novel from the author for review purposes.

First, the official blurb: FACT: In 1942, in growing desperation at the progress of the war and fearing invasion by the Nazis, the UK government approved biological weapons tests on British soil. Their aim: to perfect an anthrax weapon destined for Germany. They succeeded. FACT: Though the attack was never launched, the testing ground, Gruinard Island, was left lethally contaminated. It became known as Anthrax Island. Now government scientists have returned to the island. They become stranded by an equipment failure and so John Tyler is flown in to fix the problem. He quickly discovers there’s more than research going on. When one of the scientists is found impossibly murdered inside a sealed room, Tyler realises he’s trapped with a killer…

First, an apology to the author. Danny kindly arranged for me to get one of a handful of very early proofs along with an ingenious publicity package, which arrived in January. As I type, it’s June… While I do always get round to reading the books I am sent, I really should’ve got round to this one sooner – particularly as it’s such a joy to read.

The first line is perfect, normality swiftly undercut with horror, as a helicopter approaches the island. These first few pages give us both a little of the setting and hints of what is to come, plus how seriously the island’s dangers are taken as John Tyler makes his journey. There are also some lovely lines (the nearby Navy ship is “a huge prowling shark”) that underline the classic action adventure stylings, as does Tyler’s outsider status and the hint that he’s capable of more than meets the eye.

He is being sent out to Anthrax Island as a replacement technician because a decontamination chamber door has failed, trapping some of the team stationed there inside their base – no chamber means no going outside, as deadly anthrax spores remain in the soil after bioweapon testing decades before and the only way to get back inside the base is if you go through the decon process first, so the door trouble is serious. There’s also the matter of the previous technician, Andy Kyle, having died…

Tyler is an outsider – he’s not Army, like those in charge, nor a scientist. He’s a civilian, though he’s much more than a technician. This isn’t the first job for danger money he has taken on, so it’s not unreasonable to assume he’ll be a match for whatever the island throws at him. The two men at the top, Captain Greenbow and Dr Donald Clay, both firmly put Tyler in what they see as his place, though we know they will be proved wrong.
A little over half-way through and the relatively slow burn bursts into flames. We had from the start the metaphorical locked room mystery of Andy Kyle’s death on an isolated island. Now we also have a literal locked room mystery of who shot a member of the team, and how did they escape? Theories abound, but each is flawed as Tyler investigates in singular fashion. From here on, things escalate, to put it mildly, though the pace is carefully controlled. A strong sense of mystery adds tension, with little bursts of action and danger keeping us on our toes. 

As things unfold, we get little glimpses into Tyler’s life and personality – he’s a man with special skills who doesn’t enjoy using them; he’s scarred physically and emotionally by his experiences. As anticipated, there’s a lot more to him than meets the eye, but it’s refreshing that it’s not all about hidden skills with weapons, there’s a real depth of character here. 

Descriptions of the finest Scottish weather – horizontal rain and squalling storms – plus the physicality of the island, with its scrubby landscape filled with rabbit holes (though there are no rabbits, or sheep, or birds) ground the story literally. There’s also the fact that Anthrax Island really exists, in the shape of Gruinard Island, where anthrax experiments were carried out by military and government scientists through the early part of the 20th century (do read the note at the end of the book). And while we’re getting better at dealing with anthrax, it is still highly deadly. There’s sobering reality in among the adventure thrills.

A night-time drama ends up with a cards on the table moment – well, some of them are on the table, many are still hidden up various sleeves – and this is the cue for the action to dial up even more (as well as dialling up the jeopardy for Tyler). We know Tyler must succeed, that’s the nature of this type of novel. But the tension of the how he will succeed – as well as the questions about the killer – is wound up steadily as we turn the pages. Some final twisty reveals bring us down from the adrenaline heights of the denouement nicely, and then there’s an ending that is a new beginning for the dog-tired Tyler, lining up a sequel nicely.

Marshall has made no secret that he is a fan of Alistair MacLean, and if you are too, there are some nice references to spot. Also in the mix in this thriller-cum-locked room mystery are Agatha Christie, Jason Bourne and Sherlock Holmes. But this is no pastiche; along with Marshall’s love of the genre comes an acute understanding of how it works and why, and the references are really nods of respect to the giants who have gone before. (It won’t spoil the book if you don’t spot any of these references, by the way, so don’t be put off.)

Like Tyler, Marshall is more than he seems – beneath the affable, funny, grounded exterior I’ve seen via Zoom this past year is a writer’s brain that takes disparate, clashing influences, brews them together til they release all their flavours from fragrant top note to tannin-sharp base and pours it all into a plot that ticks so many boxes from action thriller to stylised mystery to factual horror I fear my laptop will explode in sparks trying to describe it all. Anthrax Island is hugely enjoyable and beautifully crafted, and Marshall is a distinct new voice in the genre. Bring on that sequel!

DL Marshall was born and raised in Halifax, West Yorkshire. Influenced by the dark industrial architecture, steep wooded valleys, and bleak Pennine moors, he writes thrillers tinged with horror, exploring the impact of geography and isolation. In 2016 he pitched at Bloody Scotland. In 2018 he won a Northern Writers’ Award for Anthrax Island.

You can follow the author on Twitter here: @DLMWrites

The fantastic ARC package included a map, postcard, scientific team badge and a mysterious vial of soil… Bravo, Canelo!

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