Review: A Loyal Spy – Simon Conway

My version: Paperback
Genre: Fiction, Thriller, Spies
 Hodder & Stoughton
First published: 2010
ISBN: 9780340839683
Pages: 432

From the cover:
“The last time Jonah saw Nor ed-Din, he was lying face down in a pool of black water in the Khyber Pass. For many years, Jonah had been under the impression that he’d killed him there.
How far can loyalty be stretched before it reaches a limit? Millions of lives depend on the answer, as a twisting road of betrayal and revenge leads from the mountains of Afghanistan to the heart of London . . . and a ticking bomb.”

There was a lot to be liked and enjoyed in this one.

But there was also a fair amount I was actually quite disappointed about.

Early on, it seemed almost as if it was going to be a mix of ‘Catch 22’ and Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer, Daniel Craig’s James Bond and Jason Bourne.

Whilst it started well;

“You’re booked on a US chopper tomorrow.”
“Don’t tell me it’s got a Ukrainian crew?”
“It’s got a Ukrainian crew. But don’t worry, the pilot never takes a drink before lunchtime.”
“What time’s the flight?”
“Depends what time lunch finishes.”

And despite clearly the book’s best intentions – it never quite got there.

All the main characters come with a lot of dirty baggage from other wars; the ones you’ve heard about and, perhaps more dangerously; the ones you haven’t. Through the use of flashbacks and moving backwards and forwards, the story tries to explain reasons for characters’ behaviour and motivations. Unfortunately, these I found more irritating than explanatory, or particularly successful. When they work in the way they’re written, there is a real dream-like feel to them, as if they’re trying to remember, piece together the meaning behind actions – an often painful remembrance of past events sparked by an event happening in the here and now. That’s good. But often confusing, often even irritating, I found. I kept wishing they wouldn’t keep slowing the whole thing down and that the story would just get on with it. When the characters are discussing past events, when that is used as explanation, it works much better. More revealing more slowly, more tantalising, I felt.

It is a thriller, I guess, though it can move quite slowly. At times in Afghanistan, at times in Pakistan at times in Scotland and London, the book explores the characters’ background for their tangled espionage-linked lives and why and when and for whom, espionage becomes ‘terror’.

“‘They’ve got it into their heads that there is no law but the discretion of the United States. They’re bypassing the regular operations of intelligence, military and law-enforcement agencies and stovepiping raw intelligence to the very top. The politicians are picking and choosing without any realistic evaluation. They’re conjuring threats out of thin air. They’re going to invade Iraq.'”

Yes, it’s always easy to have 20/20 hindsight and be clever after the event, but from what we now know and indeed saw in those UN debates, then that seems about as concise a summing-up of what happened as you’re ever likely to see. Why they did it, is another matter. What matters here is that they did, and people like the book’s Jonah, Nor and Miranda, are the ones caught up in middle of the confusion and terror and revenge and war.

‘A Loyal Spy’ wants to be much more than just a seat of your chair white-knuckle ride thriller. I’ve read plenty and have got plenty waiting for me to read up there on the shelf. It was, a reasonably even-handed discussion of the whole situation of this ‘war on terror’, or of many of the wars and terrors since the collapse of Yugoslavia. But…there always came a ‘but…’

I just felt a little let down, I suppose. By a few of things. The flashbacks, the unnecessary and grating sex-scenes and a bit of a damp ending (in more ways than one). The whole story felt like it more or less fizzled out, even though the action was hectic and almost apocalyptic. There were times when he seemed to be getting to grips with peeling away the layers to get at something really worthwhile and important. But those times weren’t often enough and didn’t go far enough down into the black heart of the matter. Instead of peeling away layers, it seemed like only scratching the surface.
I kinda expected more, or better, after a good start and the long, long build-up and ground-laying, character-wise. And the ‘hero’ with a black-sheep ‘brother’ situation, was done recently much more convincingly by Jon Stock, in my opinion. All in all, I felt the book and the characters and the good parts deserved better than they got in the end.

You can buy A Loyal Spy from The Book Depository

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