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     JAMES WOLFF: BESIDE THE SYRIAN SEA.       

Price: £8.99 

Bitter Lemon Press

         

EX-MI6 employee John Le Carre has had plenty of practice at looking over his shoulder.   This time, though, it is writer James Wolff that is on his tail.  Beside The Syrian Sea has been praised for being relevant and having a sharp contemporary edge.  So it is but the real pleasure in reading this debut novel from James Wolff is to enjoy a well-crafted tale that continues the great tradition of British espionage fiction.  He may not regard them as mentors but Eric Ambler, Graham Greene and John Le Carre are all evoked by Beside The Syrian Sea.  At least one of the themes pays homage to Graham Greene, the conflict between being loyal to friends or relatives rather than a country or profession.  The authenticity and detail echoes John Le Carre, and Jonas, the deskman out of his depth amongst warriors, is the kind of character that fascinated Eric Ambler.

The serious will respond to Beside The Syrian Sea and fret about the political chaos and conflict in the Middle East.  But even as tentative Jonas fumbles his way through the action there is satisfying romance.  The solitary and remote human being is a worldwide creation in escapist fiction.  The British are fortunate because they can add to this clipped vowels and impeccable manners.  Nothing rewards British patriotism as much as our talent for deceit and performance.  Hitchcock understood this aspect of the British personality as well as anyone.  In his classic spy movie North By Northwest the dangerous spy is played by Englishman James Mason.  He refers to plays and the theatre when discussing espionage.  The moment in Beside The Syrian Sea when Jonas identifies the charade that has been played by his colleagues is especially satisfying.  Jonas is not a hero but he is a decent human being and, forced to leave his desk, he will not have time for women but he will be embraced by the romantic notions that inspire so many people to pursue intrigue as an occupation. 

As happens in the fiction of Le Carre, the plan of Jonas is revealed in stages.  This not only maintains the mystery but also helps us to share the risk that Jonas is taking.  The game that Jonas plays with his colleague Naseby should be messy enough to convince any reader.  The cover of Beside The Syrian Sea mentions that James Wolff prior to becoming a novelist worked for the British Government.   No other details are supplied but most of us will assume that Wolff writes from experience and that his novel was not inspired by daydreaming whilst employed in the Department of Work and Pensions.  The detail, both within the Secret Service and on the streets of Beirut, convinces us that the tale and events are authentic.   The deceits and twists feel like what would happen in the British Secret Service and they benefit from having the feel of daily operations rather than the elaborate constructions that sometimes plague spy stories.  
Besides The Syrian Sea
will appeal to both romantics and realists.

By Howard Jackson