Thursday, May 10, 2018
Review: Beside the Syrian Sea by James Wolff
Reviewed by Lynn Harvey.
(Read more of Lynn's reviews for Euro Crime here.)
“The lie was necessary, Tobias,” Jonas said. “It allowed us to establish who you are, what you are. To establish whether you’re the right person to help us with something of huge importance.”
Jonas is 35 years old, a loner working as an analyst in the quieter backwaters of British Intelligence. His personal nightmare erupts when his father, the Reverend Samuel Worth, is taken hostage during an ecumenical mission of support to the Christian Church in Syria. Theirs is not a warm father-son relationship and Jonas is ravaged by guilt at not advising his father better and at allowing their animosities to come between them at what may prove to have been their last contact.
Unable to provoke his employers and the British government to deviate from their policy of refusing to pay ransom demands nor to speak clearly on their progress in negotiating his father’s freedom, Jonas, unkempt and increasingly unruly, begins to foster his own plans. Now, months later and on Special Unpaid Leave which is dismissal by any other name, he has based himself in Beirut.
He has already been visited by Desmond Naseby who introduces himself as a visiting SIS officer on a brief stay in Beirut and anxious to check up on him. How is he is getting on? Would he like to see the latest on the negotiations in his father’s case, blah-di-blah? Naseby looks around the flat on the pretext of “a niece” coming to study in Beirut and wondering about accommodation. Why was Jonas even here? Turkey, Naseby could understand, but Beirut? And people are concerned about Jonas. This isn’t London. And then of course everyone is worried about that Snowden chap, how much damage a USB stick can do. In turn, Jonas wonders what more he could have done to flesh out Naseby’s portrait of him as a useless mess; “no cause for further concern”. An empty vodka bottle would have been a good idea, plenty of glasses lying around.
Jonas has tracked down his own hostage negotiator. Tobias is a Swiss national, a defrocked and alcoholic priest who has acted as a negotiator in the past. Jonas had presented himself to Tobias as a journalist but now he paints himself as the most secret of secret agents on a mission to get a hostage out of Syria. Tobias is distrustful but eventually consents, demanding his own favours by way of payment: a UK visa and safe passage across the border for a Syrian woman. Jonas realises too late it would have been easier if he had laid the truth before Tobias, that the hostage was his own father. But in accepting the price set by Tobias he has raised the stakes on his elaborate trail of deception which will see him pursued and threatened by MI6, the CIA and both ISIS and Hezbollah during his desperate journey to the Syrian border.
We often talk about unlikely heroes but Wolff's compassionate portrait of his protagonist Jonas, in this his first novel, is exceptional. Driven by a dreadful need to put things right and deprived of his own carefully controlled boundaries and routines, Jonas unleashes within himself – to his own utter bewilderment – what he himself calls a "wildness". And it is this wildness, together with a marshalling of his own habitual tics of memory and pattern recognition which provide the engine for his extraordinary attempt to free his father. Wolff's characterisations do not stop there: the Swiss priest Tobias; Maryam, the Syrian woman fiercely loyal to Tobias; the British agent Naseby who, dressed in tennis whites and clutching his wife's offering of a cottage pie, seems to have stepped straight out of Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy. The foul mouthed, lethal, CIA man, Harvey, is a more modern beast – as are the London-grown, street-talking, ISIS kidnappers. Wolff’s range of characters are detailed and convincing and in this beautifully constructed thriller he piles on the pressure to the end.
Sometimes I think that crime novels answer a reader's emotional need for justice to triumph, no matter how rough. Similarly, perhaps spy thrillers allow the reader to indulge a paranoid adrenaline-fuelled flight from the all powerful "they" who are out to get us. Certainly everyone is out to get Jonas and BESIDE THE SYRIAN SEA is a brilliant, gripping and moving thriller.
Lynn Harvey, May 2018