I know I am doing this out of order, and one day I will go back and do reviews of Stormbreaker and Point Blanc. Skeleton Key is the third in the series of teenage spy, Alex Rider books written by Anthony Horowitz. The first thing you should know about Horowitz’s books is that they are first rate. I don’t know why, but currently I believe ‘Young Adult’ fiction is more imaginative and better written than a lot of the so-called adult fiction that is out there. If you are concerned that reading a ‘Young Adult’ book would be a diluted reading experience, let me assure you that Horowitz books have a healthy dose of bone crunching violence, death, mayhem and destruction. The only aspect that is toned down is the heroes sexual relationships. Obviously they are in tune with what you’d expect from a fourteen year old boy.
The hero of this book is Alex Rider and he has quite a back story. Before I go any further, as I mentioned at the outset, this is the third book in the Alex Rider series and although you could read this book as a stand alone piece, it is a series that is best read in order. There are numerous illusions to Alex’s past missions and characters he has dealt with.
But to bring you up to speed, Alex is a fourteen year old boy who lives in London. His parents died when he was young and he was brought up by his uncle, Ian Rider. Alex believed the his uncle worked for a bank, when in fact he was a M.I.6 operative. Little did Alex realise that all the leisure, sporting and holiday activities that his uncle exposed him to, where giving him a set of skills that could and would prepare him for a life as a secret agent. When Ian Rider is killed (in Stormbreaker), Alex is reluctantly recruited by M.I.6 to finish his uncle’s mission.
This novel starts on a small Cuban island called Cayo Esqueleto, or Skeleton Key if you prefer, and two couriers are delivering a shipment of weapons grade uranium to a rogue Russian General named Sarov. The couriers foolishly try to alter the bargain, requesting more money. Sarov deals with them with a rather harsh way – the couriers end up being a meal for some hungry crocodiles.
Meanwhile, back in London, schoolboy Alex Rider, after a chance meeting with an M.I.6 controller named Crawley, is at Wimbledon. Not watching the tennis as he would have liked, but as a ball boy. Apparently there have been mysterious goings on at the All England Tennis Club, and Crawley wanted Alex to have a snoop around. And snoop he does. Soon he has uncovered a plot by a Triad syndicate to alter the results of the matches (by secretly drugging some of the players). Alex foils the Triads plans – forcing them to lose a vast amount of money in bets.
After Wimbledon, Alex then spends some time in Cornwall surfing. One morning a Triad member attempts to kill Alex by running over him with a jet ski. Alex survives the attempt and is soon called into M.I.6 headquarters. It seems that Alex is now on a Triad hitlist. More attempts on his life will be made. The Triad will keep coming until they have killed him. But there is something that can be done about it. M.I.6 are not entirely without influence and through discreet channels, they can eventually call off the hit on Alex. But all this takes time. Over the following days Alex will still be in great danger. It is decided that he should go into hiding. And conveniently enough, M.I.6 have just brokered a deal with the C.I.A. They require a young boy for one of their operations and M.I.6 have kindly donated Alex’s services.
Alex is not happy. He does not consider himself a spy – and certainly does see himself as an asset that M.I.6 can just ‘loan’ out whenever they want. Despite this, Alex finds himself on his way to Miami to participate in a C.I.A operation.
In Miami, Alex is given his mission briefing. He is to play the part of the son to two American agents, Belinda Troy and Tom Turner. The two Americans aren’t thrilled at the prospect at having to chaperone a child as a part of their cover – but it is the only way they can get into Cuba and onto the island of Cayo Esqueleto without raising suspicion. Once the three operatives have arrived safely on Skeleton Key, it is deemed that Alex should just stay out of the way and leave the spying to the two professional adults – but of course, things don’t quite work out that way!
I love the Alex Rider books. It has to be admitted that they wouldn’t exist if there was a Bondian universe to parody. Alex goes through all the usual Bondian setpieces before heading off on his mission, including a session with the gadget master, Smithers, who equips Alex with all manner of small gadgets that come in handy over the course of the mission. But Horowitz uses the Bond framework to write great adventures for his hero Alex Rider, twisting it to suit the demographic he is writing for. For example, Bond could never really do Wimbledon – and certainly couldn’t be a ball boy! So Horowitz utilises the universe he has created for Alex to the full.
If you’ve never read an Alex Rider book because you believe they are kids stuff, then let me reassure you that Horowitz does not write down to his audience. A few months back I read the Man From UNCLE book ‘The Affair of the Gunrunners Gold’. It too is a children’s book, and when I read it, I certainly got the feeling that I was reading a kids book. The wording and phrasing was simple, and the plot was as thin as tissue paper. Horowitz doesn’t take this approach. He treats his readers as ‘adults’ and as such the stories read incredibly well whatever age you are. I am really looking forward to revisiting some more of Alex’s adventures.