Review published on March 7, 2017.
Gerald Seymour is a consummate thriller writer and as a reader you know you are in safe hands with his books. Over the years, I have read five or six of his books and always found them intriguing, informative and realistic, with more than a hint of excitement. Seymour has carved himself a niche as the ‘go to’ writer for undercover or infiltration plots. Jericho’s War is a fine example of Seymour on form, a strong story that feels as fresh as any of his earlier books. Seymour has been writing novels full time since leaving journalism in the late 70s. This is a classy thriller that shows no signs of Seymour dipping in form or just coasting. Sadly, some writers do dip as they struggle with finding exciting new material and maintaining the energy that made them successful in the first place. I was a little worried that after 40 years some of the passion and drive might be lacking, but not a bit of it.
Jericho’s War is set in Yemen and connected locations around the world. Going up against all the odds are a team of disparate has-beens and burn-outs, although that is not the way they see it. These men, seeking a second chance to get back in the game, have to work with an amateur already in situ, a woman sort of bushwhacked into service. The plan to complete a deadly mission in the deserts of Yemen. The gang are working for puppet master, Jericho, a man with his own agenda, who is mounting his own private little war. The group he picks is made up of Corrie Rankin, nominal leader, Henrietta ‘Harry’ Wilson, archaeologist, co-opted because of her location and naivety, and also the trigger men Richard Taggart, ‘RAT’, the sniper, and his factotum Kit, nickname ‘Slime’. Thousands of miles away in New Mexico USAF pilots Xavier and Casper are manning the predator drone programme for the region, watching, waiting and ready to strike, but totally in the dark about the mission on the ground. Jericho has a man on the inside of an Al Qaeda strong hold, Towfik al-Dhakir, formerly Tobias Darke from Yorkshire, codename ‘Belcher’. Corrie and Belcher have history and Jericho uses this as a platform to mount the operation. The target is the ‘Emir’, a man responsible for many terrorist incidents, a survivor of Tora Bora and a high value target for the West. The Emir has been meeting with the new star of the organisation, the ‘Ghost’, a tactical genius and dangerous fanatic. The two men are working on a device that can be sewn inside the body of suicide bombers, which is undetectable at security check points. These two fanatics are planning a major attack. All is set for Jericho’s war to begin but the best laid plans … gang aft aglay (often go awry). With the chosen personnel, the quickly cobbled together mission, and the lack of ‘reading in’, the higher ups should know the plan things won’t go smoothly.
The men and one woman fighting Jericho’s War are a rag tag bunch of heroes. But there is a plausible feel to each of the characters and how they got to be at the centre of the story. They are well constructed characters and the oddball relationships drive the story, maybe they are just what the job needs. They have backstories that intrigue and unfold in a timely way throughout the story. Each is the right mix of light and dark, which helps to make them believable.
Jericho’s War has a slow, comfortable, highly structured plotline that sets the characters in place and draws the political setting, puts the local situation in context and roles out the story. There is something of the journalist and his reporting style in the story because Seymour wants to explain as well as describe the territory of the novel, imparting nuggets of information and mood setting. So this is a slow burn and a mix of many ingredients. Some may not like that, but make no mistake the last 100 pages are as exciting as any thriller you will read this year. The novel is highly topical, set in the often forgotten Yemen, a country torn by factional fighting. Jericho’s War deals not just with terrorism and the evolving methods the terrorists use, but also drone strikes and ethical concerns regarding modern warfare. Although there is no mistaking who the ‘flawed’ good guys are.
Jericho’s War is meticulously researched and feels authentic when dealing with life inside the world of the Islamist terrorist camp; the security, the hierarchy and the day to day life. The Emir and the Ghost are as authentic as any of the other characters portrayed in the novel. Equally, Seymour is a master of detail of the black op, the mission on the ground behind the lines and in enemy territory. The stresses and strains of being behind enemy lines, of infiltrating a group or of living under the constant fear of a drone strike by hellfire missiles are all apparent.
Seymour is a considered writer, but Jericho’s War still fizzes with excitement and that makes it a top thriller. I haven’t read one of his novels for a few years and it was a pleasure to come back to his writing. This is not quite John Le Carre territory, but it is streets ahead of the kind of black and white action thrillers that offer no nuance or depth, entertaining but soon forgotten. This novel will stay with you. Jericho’s War reminds me a little of Dan Fesperman’s novel The War Lord’s Son, a favourite of mine in this field, covering some of the same themes but set in Afghanistan.
Seymour excels in two areas, themes he has almost made his own. First, the interrogation. There are very few better than the interrogation scenes from Fields of Blood (1985) in which an IRA soldier is turned by a British agent. You are left in no doubt that this is the way it must have been done at the time. Second, the undercover operation or infiltration of a enemy, a theme of his work since Harry’s Game, his first novel, which was published in 1975. This theme still present with the small group of misfits in Jericho’s War; his characters inhabit this dark lonely world.
Like a lot of readers I was impressed with Harry’s Game, although it was a few years since I caught up with it, I believe it survives the test of time and is still very readable. The publisher notes that it is the first novel by a major thriller writer to tackle the modern troubles in Northern Ireland. Yet, maybe we should take account of Jack Higgins’ book The Savage Day, published in 1972. For a while, it even made the school curriculum. Both had a tremendous impact at the time of publication and Jericho’s War will impact readers, too. It may not have quite as strong an emotional pull as Harry’s Game, but it is not far off.
Solid and dependable over the years and having now published 33 novels, Seymour is still hitting the mark. Jericho’s War is topical and worthy, but also a great read. As long as you are prepared to take the time with the novel, it will reward you.
Paul Burke 4/4
Jericho’s War by Gerald Seymour
Hodder & Stoughton 9781473617735 hbk Jan 2017