Review published on April 9, 2018.
It is great to find a new spy thriller that is reminiscent of the old Cold War school but with a contemporary topic because they don’t come along very often. Beside the Syrian Sea has a complexity of plot and an intellectual sparring between protagonists that makes you think – both about the themes and the trajectory of the plot. It was a real pleasure to indulge in a spy novel that doesn’t offer caricatured characters or full on action that glossed over the lack of depth. But, just so there is no misunderstanding, there’s plenty of action here too. James Wolff is a debut author of real talent and originality. They don’t come along very often in spy fiction but Wolff is the real deal and Beside the Syrian Sea is an accomplished and exciting read. One that promises a lot for the future. The publisher, Bitter Lemon Press, has lined up some heavy weight authors to extol the virtues of Beside the Syrian Sea and I can only agree with the general praise. This is fresh and contemporary and deals with important topics in an utterly convincing way. If I didn’t know better I would never have imagined that this was a first novel. Clearly Wolff has personal knowledge of the Middle East and is able to capture some of the fluidity and complexity of the situation there in his novel.
Jonas is the kind of hero that only a thriller can produce, he’s a man making up for his past. When a chance to redeem himself comes along he is prepared to take it and hang the consequences. He’s an analyst not a field agent, but he soon learns to play the game. Jonas takes a massive gamble, trying to outsmart the terrorists and his own side, all for the love of his father. He is smart, he learns quickly and his lack of experience means that experienced agents and terrorists alike under estimate him. Is he a hero or is he about to become a traitor? What constitutes the definition of a traitor, a man who puts family first? When it comes down to it what is it in life that really matters if not the people we love? Character comes to the fore when Jonas is tested under the worst of circumstances.
The story begins when a British national, Reverend Samuel Worth, is kidnapped from a Damascus hotel while on a mission to support beleaguered Christian groups in Syria. For months there is no progress in finding him, he is probably in the hands of Daesh (ISIS). Syrian military intelligence have arrested the hotel staff, the local workers, the usual suspects to no avail. Jonas Worth flies to Beirut and meets with Father Tobias, a disillusioned Catholic priest, an alcoholic but a man who has intervened in hostage disputes in the past. He manages to convince him to take a message to the kidnappers in Syria in exchange for getting a woman called Maryam a visa to stay in England. The British authorities are not sharing much with Jonas and they are flat refusing to pay the $10M ransom. Jonas has been ousted from his security job in London and marked as a loose cannon. Neither the British nor the American welcome his intervention. Jonas has a plan and he is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to get his father back.
Beside the Syrian Sea is a contemporary spy thriller that ramps up the tension as the plot thickens. There is plenty to get the grey matter working. It’s a tale of the middle East that recognises the complex nuances of the ever changing political and social setting.
Wolff has the competing attitudes of the various secret services and the terrorists down pat, their mindsets exposed. The characters are rounded, Hezbollah, Daesh, the Americans and the British all ring true. Tobias, the priest, Maryam, the Syrian refugee, Naseby the British spy and others make a highly credible cast. Beirut and the utter chaos of Syria are well portrayed.
I’m not suggesting Wolff is in the same class as John le Carré or Edward Wilson but Besides the Strain Sea will appeal to their fans. A thoroughly entertaining spy thriller.
Paul Burke 5/4
Beside the Syrian Sea by James Wolff
Bitter Lemon Press 9781908524980 pbk Mar 2018
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