Operation Bluebird by Harry Old is a gritty romantic thriller that has no problem arresting the reader’s attention.
By Gwyn Rees
Fans of crime fiction and sobering stories of the dangers of excess will love Operation Bluebird – the latest novel by independent contemporary author Harry Old.
The attention-grabbing story features a naïve, young undercover policewoman called Carrie who infiltrates a family of gangsters in London and is expected to unearth the truth behind their criminal activities.
The family in question, the ‘Parks’, are a wealthy, notorious gang originally from North Korea that have police have been chasing for a decade.
Suspicions are rife, particularly over the disappearance of the mother, who is suspected to have been murdered, and the killing of a teenage police informant.
This is a dangerous task for Carrie but she is not alone; more experienced undercover cop, David, join hers, posing as her older brother, Drew.
Together, the pair are able to infiltrate Paradise Casino, which the Park family run.
Carrie, pretending to be a dancer by the name of Cara, soon attracts the attention of the key members of the family – Yoonho, Han, Soju and Taehwan.
Taehwan has his own grievances against his family and comes across as somewhat a pathetic figure, being addicted to drugs and alcohol. It is him who Carrie targets first, gaining his trust so that he begins to share information with her.
Carrie dives deeper into her assumed identity and soon finds that the boundaries between the real and false are blurring.
At first it is taking cocaine and clubbing with Taehwan, but then she becomes romantically involved with Soju, who promises her that he will get her ‘brother’, David, a job.
While Carrie thinks, mistakenly, that she can handle herself in the sinister crime world she has entered, the lure of wealth and high-living prove ever-more difficult to resist, sparking a chain of events with tragic consequences.
Taehwan, who has taken a shine to Carrie, is infuriated by her sleeping with Soju and kills another man in a fit of anger.
Despite his instability, however – not to mention the questionable ethics of the situation –
Carrie finds that she cannot help but be drawn romantically to him.
David, too, is becoming too involved in his persona for his own liking, being cajoled into sickening criminal acts by the ever-scheming Soju. Like some potent acid, association with the Parks is corrosive on both cops’ personalities and mental wellbeing. .
In a gripping climax, Carrie will have to choose between her loyalty to the police, who continue to push her beyond her own limits to reach their goal, or to Taehwan.
But the novel poses an even bigger question: can David and Carrie ever get back to their old worlds and put Operation Bluebird behind them. And, for that matter, do they even want to?
Operation Bluebird is an exceptional thrill-ride that stacks up the tension almost to the point that you can’t take the suspense any more.
It is a very different kind of novel compared to Old’s previous books, Not Yet Dead, Nearly (2015), and Pigeons (2019), and marks an impressive first foray into the hard-boiled crime genre for the young author.
Part of its appeal, I believe, is the way Old manages to combine a fast-paced plot loaded with unexpected twists with well-drawn characters that you come to care for, or despise.
Carrie, for instance, is seriously flawed as a person, unsuited to her mission despite thinking that she can carry it off with no problems. She is unbalanced and, as a result, easily manipulated by the cunning Parks.
And while the crime family are certainly a shocking bunch, they are far removed from paper-thin cut-out gangsters.
Each is driven by their own personal, believable motivations, and while the readers cannot condone them, we do at least begin to understand what makes these complex characters tick.
The main pairing of Carrie and David is a winning combination, and it’s refreshing to see that the author never tries to force in a romance element to their professional relationship.
The writing is equally fast and energetic, and Old certainly has an ear for authentic, impactful dialogue.
A favourite scene of mine is where a mental health doctor is telling Carrie to prioritise her feelings, and Carrie begins questioning her actions.
No. No, Carrie thought. She did not need to prioritise herself. Feeling feelings wasn’t a right, it was a torture. Nobody deserved to be tortured. She had done the right thing. Taehwan, Han, David; everyone had said so in their own way. She had done the right thing. This man didn’t know what he was saying. Her throat tightened and her breathing quickened. She had done the right thing. She had done the right thing. She had done the right thing.
In this way, Operation Bluebird successfully mixes the gritty drama of a good police procedural with an added psychological dimension.
Carrie and David are constantly plunged into difficult situations which test them to their limits and force them to choose their paths, for better or worse.
For me, this is the most gripping element of the story – the sheer jeopardy of the situation. It is largely because Carrie is, like other central characters, so nuanced that the author can immerse readers so fully in the action.
Carrie is vulnerable not just because of outside circumstances, but because of her own internal demons which lead her towards destruction.
She is a highly addictive personality – not just in terms of drink and drugs, but also in terms of her relationships and desires. The high-living lifestyles of the Parks may just prove a fatal attraction, and not just for her.
Nobody wants a crime novel where the good guys sail through their assignment without putting a foot out of place. The author, wisely, recognises this and, instead, we see how a toxic environment poisons minds, leading to bad judgments and worse outcomes.
Operation Bluebird is a criminal casefile that just has to be delved into.