Nothing can be more bitter (said Lytton Strachey) than to be doomed to a life of literature. Strachey was wrong – it is far worse to find oneself encountering a slew of bad thrillers.
Which is why picking up a novel by Gerald Seymour is like taking a deep breath of fresh air after spending a month in a cellar. Why is it that this veteran writer has so comfortably maintained his reputation as the best in the business for so many years? His sales are steady, but perhaps don’t match those of other, far less talented writers – many of whom are well aware that they are minnows to his whale. A Deniable Death once again proves that age cannot wither his nonpareil skills. Having tackled everything from the search for war criminals in the former Yugoslavia to suicide bombers in this country, his subject here is the Middle East, presented with a vividness and veracity that makes most of his rivals look footling. MI6 have in their sights a bomb-maker in Iraq, a man whose assassination is a matter of urgency. But tracking him down will be far from easy in the untamed territory of Southern Iraq, an area which does not lend itself to surveillance.
In fact, the "hides" which are Covert Rural Observation Posts (CROPs) are crucial to MI6, and the men who use them are tested to the limits in mosquito-ridden swamps. One individual, Gribbons, is charged with selecting two men for this punishing infiltration mission. From a hide in the marshes, they will gather information on the bomb specialist before they escape to the border. This deniable mission (which can have no official sanction) is made even worse by the fact that the two men that Gribbons chooses nurture an intense dislike for each other.
As always with Seymour, the sense of a minatory foreign landscape is acutely rendered. His days as a reporter covering conflicts in Vietnam, Borneo and Northern Ireland have sharpened his eye for that precise piece of detail that conjures up the locale: never have the badlands of Iraq been evoked with such oppressive rigour. And how many other writers would have fleshed out the bomb-maker, who would simply represent "evil" in most thrillers? Seymour allows us into the life and consciousness of this man, movingly describing his marriage to a mortally ill woman. When readers get to the nailbiting climax, involving an agonising wait for airborne rescue, they may be wondering why they should bother with any other thriller writer.
Hodder & Stoughton £12.99, 439pp.
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