In Henry Porter's critically acclaimed novel The Bell Ringers, England in the near future is eerily familiar. There are concerns about terrorism, the press is feisty, and the prime minister is soon to call a general election. But quietlylargely unknown to the public or even most in governmentthings have become undeniably Orwellian. Cameras with license-plate recognition software record the movements of every car. A sophisticated top-secret data-mining system known as Deep Truth combs through personal records, identifying violators of minor laws as well as those disposed to "antigovernment" beliefs. In the interest of security, the divide between private and public has crumbled. Freedom has given way to control.
David Eyam was once the prime minister's head of intelligence. He was one of those who knew about Deep Truth, but he suffered a fall from grace. Then, while on vacation in Columbia, he was killed by a terrorist bomb. Now his former lover, Kate Lockhard, has been named as the benefactor of his estate. But Eyam has left her more than just wealth; Kate is also heir to his dangerous secrets.
Chilling, absorbing, and unsettlingly realistic, The Bell Ringers is a fearless work from a talented novelist at the top of his game.
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About the Author
John Lee has read audiobooks in almost every conceivable genre, from Charles Dickens to Patrick O'Brian, and from the very real life of Napoleon to the entirely imagined lives of sorcerers and swashbucklers. An AudioFile Golden Voice narrator, he is the winner of numerous Audie Awards and AudioFile Earphones Awards.
Read an Excerpt
A Death Explained
First was the fall, then came the death, and the death erased all memory of the fall, which was in any case handled in a very British way. The story of how David Eyam was cast from the highest circles of government was no more than a footnote at the inquest, which followed hearings into a teenage road fatality and the electrocution of a tractor driver whose grab snagged overhead power lines.
Yet if there had been a programme that March morning for High Castle's newly refurbished coroner's court, David Eyam's name would have been at the top, as much due to his former positions as acting head of the Joint Intelligence Committee and a succession of unspecified roles in the prime minister's inner circle, as to the tourist's film from Cartagena in Colombia, which contained the record of his very last moments on earth.
The recording was played on three television screens and the sounds of the Colombian evening filled the provincial calm of the court with the heat and exuberance and doom of Central America. The camera jerked from a bell tower, around which white doves circled, to a line of balconies bedecked with flowers, typical of Cartagena's colonial district, then to a street vendor carrying baskets of fruit from a yoke that seemed to be made from part of a bicycle frame. It moved with such speed that the people sitting nearest the screens recoiled as though this would steady the shot for them. Kate Lockhart, seated in the second row, remained still, her eyes watching the clock on the top right-hand corner of the screen – the last minutes and seconds of her friend's life being counted off.
The camera came to rest briefly on the name 'Bolivar Creêperie', written across the length of a red awning under which there was some kind of juice bar with perspex cylinders of fruit and a cashier's desk. Then it swerved to two women and a man – all in shorts – sitting at one of several tables in front of the restaurant. Here, after a wobble, it settled. The party of three produced longsuffering smiles; sunglasses were raised and tall glasses of beer hoisted to the lens. The image froze and the coroner leaned forward and nodded to the clerk.
'This is the important part,' said the coroner's clerk, pointing at the screen in the centre of the court with a remote control. 'Pay attention to the top left-hand corner, where you will see the deceased in a navy-blue shirt and cream jacket, and then to what happens in the background on the far side of the street – over here.' He tapped the screen with the remote.
But Kate could see David Eyam nowhere. She searched the screen frantically again. The pale jacket at the top – no, that wasn't Eyam. Not that jacket, not that lank hair, not that beard, not that emaciated angularity. The man was far too thin. Christ! They'd made a mistake. The fools had got the wrong man. Eyam must be alive. Ever since she'd received the email from the firm of lawyers handling his estate a couple of weeks back, she had felt a kind of incredulity at the idea of Eyam's death. The extinction of one of the foremost intellects of his generation by a blast in some seedy quarter of a tropical port, without the world knowing for an entire month, as if Eyam was some useless hippy or boat bum, was unfeasible ... unsustainable ... incredible.
The film was started again: the new shot was in a wider frame. The camera had evidently been placed on a tripod because a second man appeared in front of the lens and adjusted something, during which process his face loomed in grotesque close-up, then sat down with the other three and swivelled his cap so the peak was at the front. Kate's eyes darted to the top of the screen. The man in the pale jacket had not moved. No, that wasn't Eyam: far too untidy. But then he turned to talk to a dark, thickset indvidual with wraparound shades and a black polo shirt on his right, and his face became animated. At a pinch it could be him. The parting was the same, although the hair was a lot longer than she had ever seen it, and the cast of his eyes, his brow and the shape of the nose all did a fair impression of Eyam. Then he handed a book to his neighbour with the sunglasses and he seemed to start talking about it: the court could hear nothing of what was said. The mannerisms of her friend in full flow were unmistakable. He sat back in the chair, caught hold of his right elbow and seemed to draw down the points he was making by opening and bunching his pianist's fingers. When the other man, who was now examining the back cover of the book with his sunglasses propped on his forehead, replied she saw his head go back with his mouth slightly open in anticipation. Even at that distance she could see the eagerness and fun in his expression. This was David Eyam. It couldn't be anyone else.
The cameraman had now taken the role of reporter and, using a small microphone held under his chin, addressed the lens – in what the clerk explained was Swedish. But the noise of the street drowned what he was saying and once or twice he looked round with dismay as a motorbike or truck passed.
The clerk cleared his throat and pointed to Eyam. 'The deceased is talking to a Detective Luis Bautista,' he said glancing at a pad. 'He is an officer with the Cartagena Police. He was meeting his girlfriend at the cafe and was off duty at the time.'
'We shall be hearing from him later,' said the coroner, looking round the courtroom over his glasses with his eyebrows rising and falling independently of any expression. 'Detective Bautista is with the local antiterrorist force and is coincidentally a specialist in the sort of attack we are about to witness.' His eyes went to the clerk. 'Mr Swift, you may proceed.'
Kate's mind protested. No, she would not sit calmly like the others, now peering at the film with an indecent anticipation, to watch Eyam being atomised. She drew the small shoulder bag towards her and looked for the easiest way out of the crowded courtroom, but then found herself drawn to the sight of her friend helplessly sitting there and she remembered the first time she had set eyes on him in a student common room in Oxford twenty years before: the dark, oblique presence, the swarming intelligence in his eyes, his habit of moving a hand through his hair when asked a question and then leaning forward with his fingers momentarily pressed to his mouth and blocking the inquiry with some diversionary enthusiasm that was so interesting you overlooked the failure to disclose. Two decades ago, Eyam was simply luminous – the smile of reason almost never left his face. She saw him now through the eyes of the people in court: a tourist, good-looking in a dishevelled way, yes, but also a man who seemed washed up and might easily be suffering from some form of midlife crisis, or addiction.
The dozen or so reporters leaned forward with fascination. 'Any moment now,' said the clerk, 'you will see the white Honda van approach from the right. This vehicle was carrying the device. It parks in the alley, which is bordered by the party headquarters –' he consulted his pad – 'of the People's Party for Unity, which was the target of the attack.'
The van appeared from the right but was held up first by a group of youths crossing the street, then by two men pushing a cart loaded down with bags of nuts and fruit and some kind of cooker. An arm appeared out of the driver's side and waved languidly; a glint of light on the windscreen meant no face was visible as it turned. The van entered the alley and parked but the driver found he couldn't open the door far enough to get out and had to reverse out then park again. Presently a stocky man wearing sunglasses and a cap appeared from the shadows. He paused in a splash of evening sunlight, rubbed his forearms, glanced down the street then sauntered off without the least hurry.
On the near side of the street, the policeman had shifted his chair round to face Eyam, who was gesturing towards the book and nodding. She saw now that he meant the book as a gift. The detective seemed overwhelmed and rose and shook his hand then returned to his seat and began to thumb through what she could see was a slim paperback. Nothing happened for a few seconds, then Eyam slipped a hand inside his jacket, removed a phone and made a call seemingly without dialling. At that moment a wedding party came into view on the other side of the street: the newlyweds – a beautiful mulatto couple – were followed by some children and about twenty guests. A band of five musicians brought up the rear of the procession. They soon moved out of shot. She looked back to Eyam, who had finished his call and was returning the phone to his jacket. He had spoken for no more than thirty seconds. With a start she remembered the call she'd received from him out of the blue one Saturday in January, the first contact since they had fallen out and drifted irrevocably apart. It was at the weekend, and she'd gone to stay with old man Calvert in Connecticut. She returned the call to the unfamiliar number but had got no answer. After trying a dozen or so times over the next week she gave up, assuming he would eventually respond. His message was short – he said he felt like speaking to her – and it was still there. She was sure of that because she was in the habit of methodically erasing all those to do with her work as she dealt with them. But she'd kept this one, out of sentiment and guilt and a hope that the chill between them had ended; also because she meant to copy this new number to her list of contacts.
She watched the film, aware of her short, shallow breaths. The detective's attention was drawn to someone out of shot, and he began to wave. From the right of the screen came a woman dressed in a dark red flared skirt and a white shirt that was knotted at the waist like a fifties pinup. The detective was saying something about her to Eyam. She paused before reaching the tables, put her index finger to her chin, then raised her hand theatrically and clicked her fingers to suggest she had just remembered something. With a swirl of skirts, she almost pirouetted and walked across the road where she pretended to window shop, bending over and then stretching upwards to examine something at the top of the display, and showing off her figure to maximum effect. She moved out of shot. The detective slapped his thighs with mock exasperation and threw himself back in his chair as though to say he could play it cool too. Eyam nodded sympathetically, then drained his drink and got up.
He took a couple of paces, said something over his shoulder – probably his last words – paused at the kerb for a truck carrying a gang of workers to pass, then crossed over and entered the alley, squeezing past the white van into the dark of the tunnel.
The clerk pressed a button on the remote and the picture froze again, causing kate's eyes to settle on the clerk's head and neck, which rose from his shoulders like a cork in a bottle. 'At this moment,' said the clerk, turning with sudden movement to the court, 'the detective heard the first detonator and realised what was going to happen, which explains his quick reaction. The delay between the first and second detonators, usual in this kind of bomb, was probably intended, but it may have been simply an indication of the amateurishness of the bomb maker.'
'However,' said the coroner, 'the Colombian authorities believe that the delay was designed to allow maximum dispersal of the gas before detonation.' The clerk nodded agreement.
The film was started again. The field of the shot seemed to have changed, as though the camera had been loosened on its stand and the lens had drifted upwards a few degrees. There was an odd moment of stillness when nothing much happened. In the foreground the tourists stared about them without speaking. No vehicles passed. Then the detective sprang out of his chair and sprinted across the street waving frantically for the girl to get down. His shouts were picked up by the camera's microphone. The girl stepped back from the shop window with an appalled and strangely embarrassed expression and began to walk towards him, her arms held outwards interrogatively. The detective reached her, hooked his arm around her waist, lifting her off the ground in one clean movement, then ran three or four paces until they were out of shot. At this moment the cameraman bobbed up to see what was going on and blocked most of the view. A beat later he was surrounded by a halo of flame that expanded fifty yards away from him. Then a shock wave propelled his body to the left and rippled outwards. Even though the clerk had aimed the remote to turn down the volume, the roar that followed filled the courtroom. Astonishingly, the camera remained upright, possibly because its owner had shielded it from the main blast, and the film ran on for a few seconds until the camera was toppled by something falling from above. By this time there was very little to be seen except a ball of fire billowing outwards to touch everything in shot. The street vendors vanished. The people, the buildings, the parked cars, the sunlight and shadows – all were obliterated by the sudden cosmic flare of destruction.
The screens around the court went blank. One or two people murmured their shock but for the most part they were silent. Kate found herself staring vacantly at the courtroom's awful new royal-blue carpeting. There had been no time for Eyam to pass through that tunnel. He would have been killed instantly. It was as if she had just watched his death in real time and had been unable to shout a warning to him. She looked up through the windows. Outside in the March morning some scaffolding was being erected. A man warmed his hand round a cup that steamed in the wind. Eyam had gone. People were oblivious. Life went on.
The coroner glanced down at the lawyer appointed by David Eyam's stepmother. 'Would it suit you, Mr Richards, if we rose now and resumed at – say – two o'clock?'
'By all means, sir,' said the man moving to his feet with his fingers tucked into the back of his waistband. 'May I ask if you think it likely that the remains will be released for burial? My client would like to set the funeral arrangements in train as soon as possible. A provisional date of next Tuesday – the twelfth – has been suggested. There is much to organise.'
'Yes, I think that can be taken as read. Please inform Lady Eyam that she may go ahead.' He paused. 'We will leave evidence of identification and the interview with Detective Bautista until this afternoon.' He turned to reporters who were occupying the benches that would have been used by the jury had the coroner exercised his option to call one. 'A copy of this film will be released after I deliver a verdict, which I expect to be at the end of the afternoon.' With this he rose and left through a door behind the chair.
Outside the court, Kate switched on her phone and worked her way back through the messages from colleagues all expressing disbelief at her sudden departure from the head office of Calvert-Mayne in Manhattan. There was a score of callers wondering why she had left one of the most important jobs in the law firm for an unspecified role in the backwater of the London office. At length she came to Eyam's call on the Saturday of his death. 'Hello there, Sister – it's me. Eyam,' he started. He sounded relaxed. 'I felt like having a chat, but it seems you're busy and I now realise it's not ideal this end either, because I'm sitting outside in a street bar and a bloody wedding party has just appeared so you wouldn't be able to hear much anyway. But, look, I miss you and I'd really love to see you when I get back. Perhaps we should meet in New York. We will see each other.' He paused. 'You are in my thoughts, as always, and there's much I want to discuss with you, but now I'll just have to make do with the charming policeman whom I am sitting here with. Speak to you soon – all my love.'
She held the phone to her ear for a few seconds, thinking that if she had answered the call she might have delayed him leaving his table in the bar. The tourists and the policeman escaped with their lives; only the people in the confined space of the alley were killed. She snapped the phone shut, lit a cigarette – one of a ration of five – and then opened it again to search the phone's memory for the time of the call. Five forty-five in the afternoon. She could probably work out exactly what she was doing at that precise moment, but what was the point? Eyam was dead. She just had to get used to the idea.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Bell Ringers"
Copyright © 2009 Henry Porter.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
"[An] outstanding near-future thriller.... Shaken U.S. [listeners] will wonder how much of the fiction might soon become fact on this side of the Atlantic." -Publishers Weekly Starred Review
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
After reading this book, and seeing that I am the first to review, I wonder- am I going on a government list for reading this book? Is my review to be archived in my personal government file, to be retrieved when the citizenry are hauled in for violations of some secret Act? Those are some of the feelings that you might be left with after reading Henry Porter's timely novel postulating what might happen in Britain if the current trend toward government intrusion in the lives of its citizens continues. The apathy of the British public to its declining privacy is also a focus, and fear, in the novel. As a spy novel, or thriller goes, the book rises and falls. When the character Kate Lockhart starts sleuthing, there are moments of Nancy Drew to be seen. But when Porter sticks to the government itself, a creepy feeling comes up your back and you know he has his finger on the real danger facing the public- itself, and its complacency that rights long held will forever be held.
I listened to this one. The narration by John Lee was excellent.Set a few years in the future, this is the story of Kate Lockhart, who returns to England from several years in the US to find it transformed into a police state. Her old friend and lover has apparently been killed in a terrorist attack in Columbia.It's a realistic depiction of where technology and current trends are taking us. It's gone much further in the UK than in the US, but still pretty scary.
This book had me on the edge of my chair at all times. It's based in the too distant future Britain. Was fun to hear them refer to the London Olympics (which are happening presently) in the past-tense.
Henry Porter is well-regarded in England and has some background in government. His book is a very unpleasant look at a near future England with omni-present surveillance. The technology is an extension of the present day, with multiple camera feeds, etc. What is chilling is the ability of those close to a laborish Prime Minister to justify and ratchet up fear to justify mass round-ups of dissidents, etc. The message is to be very beware of faceless men and women who "want to help" and think that extends to violation of fundamental civil liberties on a massive scale. Of course, that couldn't happen here...
I loved the writing style. A nice change of pace from some of the pablum I have been reading. This book hits too close to home, causing the reader to wonder who might be using the vast amount of personal information now available on each of us to ultimately limit our freedom. It also sounds the bell on our willingness to give up privacy and civil liberties for false security. When I finished this book, I tried to find others written by Henry Porter, but was unable to do so. Hopefully, more of Porter's books will make their way to my local Barnes & Noble.