While the cold war provided plenty of fodder for thriller writers this was often very black and white – or at least it boiled down to the murkiness of a conflict between the west and the Soviet Union. In some ways, the complexity of the current state of play in Europe and the world allows for a much more nuanced form of thriller. And it is this complexity that Nicholas Shakespeare leans into in his latest novel The Sandpit. While set very firmly among the dreaming spires of Oxford, The Sandpit has tendrils that snake to South America, Iran, Canada, Russia and beyond. The Sandpit is a sort of sequel to Shakespeare’s novel The Dancer Upstairs but no familiarity of that book is needed to enjoy this one.
Ex-journalist John Dyer has returned to his native England from Brazil. Trying to recapture some of his old life he has enrolled his teenage son Leandro in the same Oxford prep school that he attended. But he quickly finds out that the school, while the same in some ways, is now very different – its clientele now sourced globally from the international elite. When the book opens, Dyer is dealing with an unfortunately common school situation – his son and another boy have been systematically bullied by a third boy as revenge for them being picked ahead of him in the first XI soccer team. Only the second boy is the son of an Iranian nuclear scientist and their tormentor is the son of a Russian oligarch. This encounter throws Dyer and the Iranian, Rustum Marvar together, and they strike up a friendship which leads to Marvar entrusting Dyer with potentially world-changing information before he then disappears.
With Marvar gone, Dyer must decide what to do with the knowledge that he left behind. At the same time, the people around Dyer, many of whom have some sort of interest in Marvar’s work, suspect that he knows more than he is saying. Slowly, the other parents at the school start to reveal their professional side. This includes an old school colleague of Dyer’s from the British Foreign Office, but also the Russians, the CIA and a successful global investor looking to make a killing from the information.
This feels very much like a Le Carré-style set up. A British everyman with a slightly chequered past and a some useful skills going up against a range of state-based interests. Every conversation and encounter that Dyer has is a form of game playing that hides deeper agendas. The thriller element comes from wondering just how Dyer will evade detection for long enough to decide how to protect the information in his possession and then what to do with it. There is a little of the love letter to Oxford here too in the setting which is brought stunningly to life but that also serves to ground the action.
Shakespeare does not assume much prior knowledge of the complexity that sits behind the players involved in this plot. As a result, there are a number of points in the book where the action slows down for exposition – one character lecturing Dyer by spelling out facts about Iran’s nuclear ambitions that he (and presumably the reader) needs to know to make the story work. The solution when it comes, feels a little like a deus ex machina which itself requires a fairly long exposition to justify, a move which drains out some of the tension that Shakespeare has built up.
The Sandpit takes as it centre the nuclear arms deal with Iran and its dismantling by the Trump administration. The characters mostly represent the range of very different state and commercial interests around that deal. And it uses this situation and these characters as the jumping off point for an understated, engaging thriller that runs off the complexity of modern world affairs