Literary Review: Shaun Clarke - Underworld

Paperback Cover - Underworld

Shaun Clarke


Hodder and Stoughton, 1997

Available secondhand from Amazon and other online sources

Date Reviewed:



Generally, action thrillers are something that I enjoy reading in situations where something more intellectually demanding isn't quite the ticket (no pun intended), like on a long journey by train or similar, where you really just want a comfortable and entertaining read. However, an action thriller by Shaun Clarke, the bestselling author of, among others, The Exit Club and the Soldier: SAS series of Special Forces novels, is something quite different. Underworld proved no exception. This comes as no surprise when you remember that Shaun Clarke is a pseudonym of the supreme storyteller extraordinaire, W. A. Harbinson.

Set in the Belfast underworld of the early years of the peace process in Northern Ireland, Shaun Clarke's Underworld is never comfortable, undemanding reading. With some former IRA paras having turned to crime on a massive scale, the British authorities feel compelled to 'neutralize' this increasingly huge threat. Unable to do so overtly however, a covert operation is sanctioned and SAS Sergeant Mike Burton, a veteran of the Falklands and first Gulf campaigns as well as Northern Ireland and considered the best man the SAS have, is assigned the near impossible task of eliminating the six most dangerous gangsters in Belfast.

Underworld is not a simple, 'clean' military action thriller. It is anything but. Essentially, it is about the covert attempt to assassinate six former prominent IRA paras-turned-gangsters, a highly dangerous and 'dirty' action. But there are also a lot of complications, both physical as well as psychological, the latter to a large extent arising out of Burton's own past and the ghosts of that past that still haunt him.

So not only is it a rather unusual action thriller with a controversial story line, violent and high-tension in itself, but Shaun Clarke's Underworld is also a tense, gripping psychological thriller, with an unusual love story drama.

Gripping you by the balls from its opening pages and not letting go, Underworld compels you to read through to the end to find relief from the suspense, drama, and downright sweat-inducing tension, to get out of at once the nightmarish Belfast underworld and the equally nightmarish world of covert operations of the dirtiest kind that Shaun Clarke so vividly draws you into and makes you a part of. The intensity can at times seem almost unbearable and ensures you feel as if you're right in the thick of the story. By the time you're a few pages into Belfast, you'll even start thinking in Ulster dialect. Being a native of Belfast, use of the lingo comes easily to Clarke, although it always remains equally easily comprehendible.

Shaun Clarke's Underworld is extremely messy and dirty, with a violence that is almost palpable, and it is also the perfect, un-sanitised action thriller, with riveting storylines and gripping action that'll both have you on the edge of your seat. Underworld is however also deeply disturbing, unpleasant and unsettling to the more sophisticated reader, and at more than one level, too.

There may be some kind of atonement, some kind of redemption for the leading characters in the end but even that is very messy and disturbing. But the only kind of 'redemption' there is for the reader, is to 'get the hell out of there' - but Underworld is going to haunt you for a long while...

This 'thinking man's thriller' is remarkably insightful in respect of the background of 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland and their effects on people and everyday life, and the aftermath of the peace initiative, lending the story an unusual authenticity. Its stark realism is chilling. You won't want to put down Shaun Clarke's Underworld until you've reached the very end, Clarke's brilliant, compelling narration just won't let you go.

Although this superlative thriller is currently out of print, you can easily find Shaun Clarke's Underworld on the secondhand market, especially through online sources such as Amazon.

© 2009 Rainlore's World of Music/Rainlore. All rights reserved.

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