Jericho's War - Gerald Seymour *****
There are some familiar aspects to the covert military operation in Gerald Seymour's latest novel Jericho's War, but that's to be expected from an author who not only knows the established pattern and procedure of such operations, but also demonstrates a remarkable insight into the lives and motivations of the people involved in them. The author's finger on the pulse of world affairs takes a team to a village near Sana'a in the Yemen this time, but aside from the location things really don't change. The potential for things to wrong is one of those constants, with the only variable being the extent to which events can slip out of control. Gerald Seymour considers the imponderables.
Perhaps the biggest imponderable is the whole nature of the operation itself. A unit of three has been assembled to go into Yemen and eliminate an individual who is deemed to be a serious threat to security. It's strictly old-school, feet on the ground, cloak-and dagger, action man heroics; the kind of thing that is a little bit of an indulgence now for British agents longing for the glory days before the US unsportingly started using drone strikes against terrorism from 3,000 miles away. There are a few of the old guard like Jerry Cornelius, known as Jericho, who are looking for a feather in their cap and a pat on the back before they are deemed a necessary cutback and pensioned off.
It requires a cool head to hold your nerve when the time comes to put your trust in the operatives you've selected and hope they come out the other side, and those with any real experience of this kind of mission are also getting a bit too old for this kind of thing. The pressure and concern about the nature of the mission and the success of the outcome becomes even more unpredictable when you factor in the nature of the individual members of the team. It might not matter how cool a head Jericho maintains if he has hotheads working for him. There are few concerns about their ability and reputation, but how will this lot get on together?
It doesn't look promising. Corrie Rankin has made his name escaping from a hostage situation in Syria. An agent working undercover as an aid worker, Corrie not only escaped but managed to recruit a young Englishman who has gone over there to fight, giving him the codename of Belcher. Belcher could prove to be an invaluable resource as an informer now that he is there in the Yemen. As far as Rat, the sniper on the team is concerned however, Rankin's achievements are all in the past and he's not going to take orders from someone living off past glories and a bit of luck. He trusts only his own instinct and that of his right-hand man, Slime. It's going to make their working relationship somewhat difficult.
The job is a whole other level of complication, but it's one that the folk in MI6 don't think can be entrusted to their US colleagues with their drones, or as Rat puts it "a geek stuck on the far side of the world flying a toy plane". There are two individuals they want targetted; the Emir, who is in charge of the insurgents in that region, and the Ghost, an engineer who is developing a new kind of improvised explosive device that can be inserted undetectably into the body of a 'mule' who can detonate it to take down a commercial flight. At great risk to himself and to Harry, an archaeologist working in the region, Belcher has provided Jericho with information of a wedding where both men might be vulnerable to an attack. The mission is now entirely in the hands of a small unit who have very little trust for each other, much less respect. Anything could happen.
But, as is often the case with Gerald Seymour, it's going to take a while before anything does happen. The author is meticulous about laying out the ground, establishing the situation and developing a matrix of contrasting personalities with their motivations, their flaws and their conflicts, and doing it with forensic and psychological precision. When it does get there however - and this time the author's writing is relatively more tightly focussed - it's all guns blazing and nothing of course goes entirely to plan. And, despite some familiarity in the operational methods, Seymour always finds a new spin on such situations. Here in Jericho's War the whole nature of trust is determined to be a major factor; how difficult it is to gain it and how impossible it is to regain it once it has been lost. There are many lines of communication and collaboration here that rely on trust, but trust is hard to come by in this business.
But there's another wild-card element in Jericho's War that is a little more speculative and some might feel out of place. It's the response of one or two of the people in the field to the archaeologist Harry, who is actually a female. Her role in events as a woman, as a civilian, and how she is regarded by the others - sometimes with misty-eyed romanticism and delusion - is by far the most unpredictable element in the operation and potentially the most incendiary one. The unpredictable response and workings of the human mind in a tense situation is what Seymour does best, and he's still at his best here in Jericho's War. The subject is utterly contemporary and relevant, but Seymour never gets political about it. Jericho's War weighs up the moral complexity of the political and military questions but puts a human face on them, and in the process reveals much about the complexities of human behaviour.
Jericho's War by Gerald Seymour is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 5th January 2017
Jericho's War - Gerald Seymour *****