Those of sufficient age and with sufficient memory may recall a fiendishly clever piece of marketing from yesteryear, when an oil company announced that it would be dropping the tiger from its advertising – this in the days when “I’ve got a tiger in my tank” was the catchiest of catchphrases. Surprise, surprise, there was a public outcry, and the next series of ads even featured placard-wielding “protesters” demanding the animal’s return. The tiger (which had had no intention of retiring and was no doubt on an all-the-fresh-meat-you-can-eat retainer) then stepped back into the limelight. Years later, Anthony Horowitz and I worked for the ad agency that handled the account.
The apparent death of Horowitz’s central character, Alex Rider, in his fifth outing, Scorpia, was handled in a similar fashion. The author readily admits that he never really intended to kill off his young secret agent. No one in their right mind would, apart, perhaps, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (Flashy PR material informs us that more than two million Alex Rider books have been sold.) So Alex is back in this, his sixth adventure, Ark Angel.
Alex Rider has always been very much a junior James Bond of the film variety, so when I discovered that Ark Angel included a space hotel and a character named Silver Tooth, I had flashbacks to the dreadful Jaws in Moonraker, my least favourite Bond movie of all time. I needn’t have worried. Horowitz’s extreme earnestness, dreadful puns (the gadget master’s exploding iPod is called the i-x-Plod), surprising turns of phrase (“a fireplace big enough to burn a bus”) and sudden bursts of real humour are united in a plot that has the reader racing through the 340-plus pages from start to finish.
Highbrow literature this ain’t, but neither does it purport to be. For me, this is a children’s book in the purest sense. It’s not a crossover title that spills over into adult fiction. It’s perfectly pitched at its readership. Ark Angel reads the way a children’s thriller should read. The central character, apart from Alex himself, is billionaire Russian businessman and British football-team owner, Nikolei Drevin. To avoid the lawyers of real-life mega-rich Russian businessman and owner of Chelsea Football Club, Roman Abramovich, breathing down his neck, Horowitz has included Abramovich as a separate character to make it absolutely clear they’re NOT one and the same. (I repeat: N-O-T.) Rider’s latest escapade has him tackling bad guys in a hospital, using his brains as well as everything around him to his best advantage, escaping from a burning tower block, doing a bit of go-karting and kite-surfing and death-defying diving for good measure … and then things really skyrocket.
What makes the Rider books so satisfying is the way Alex gets out of situations. It’s the “what would I do in such circumstances?” followed by the “I never thought of that!” that makes the series such fun, and this a welcome new addition. In his acknowledgements at the end – this is a novel that certainly required research – Horowitz writes: “Everything in this story is meant to be within the bounds of possibility … ” which, in a children’s book nowadays, is a very refreshing thing indeed. Alex Rider lives. So does Ark Angel.