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Gerald Seymour: Stronger and Stronger

By Noel Mawer


Oh, East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;

But there is never East or West, Border nor Breed nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.


I can imagine the novelist Gerald Seymour as a boy, reading these lines from Kipling and being forever seduced by their sentiments: a large number of his 29 novels have as a central plot device the “two strong men,” usually pursuer and pursued. It’s what Seymour makes of this contrivance that sets him so far apart from, or above, most of his fellow thriller writers and elevates his work to the level of John LeCarre and Graham Greene’s. Seymour is precisely ten years younger than LeCarre, who seems to have peaked several decades ago while Seymour’s novels keep coming and coming longer and longer all the time. Not only can age not “wither” him, as a critic recently wrote (alluding to Shakespeare’s Antony’s description of Cleopatra, who was in her thirties at the time), but he’s still getting better and better.

Seymour has published nine novels in the last ten years, all in the 5-6 hundred page range. His first novel, the 1975 Harry’s Game, was a spectacular debut, and it is still his best-known work. It’s an amazingly detailed depiction of the Northern Ireland battles of the era, with an initially idealistic British agent tracking down an IRA terrorist—two strong men. The book is a vivid picture of Belfast and its “troubles” and a sympathetic, multifaceted rendering of its main characters, including the terrorist. But it will never be made into a Matt Damon movie. Among Seymour’s strengths are an ability to describe the intricacies of a very real war zone and to people it with living human beings. The heroic or villainous are rare in Seymour’s novels—though not the misguided or obsessed.

I’ve done some fact checking, and Seymour’s settings are historically accurate. And not just Northern Ireland but the Middle East, Eastern Europe, most of the rest of Europe, particularly Italy, especially Sicily, South Africa, and South America. Like LeCarre, Seymour is fascinated by the moral ambiguity, the waste and devastation of wars large and small (his rendering of the uprising at the Sobibor concentration camp of World War II is riveting and factually accurate and about as affecting a picture of that historical event as I have read).

The conflicts are real. (I’m not sure about the generic banana republic in Seymour’s 1993 The Fighting Man, though the Scots salmon farming scenes are compellingly realistic.) Most of the characters are fictitious. The two strong men, one an untested youth or a disgraced (or physically deteriorating) veteran who’s trying to finish one last job to redeem himself, the other, the prey, is often a terrorist but usually a patriot fighting for his beleaguered homeland (Palestine, Northern Ireland, Bosnia).

Seymour seldom takes sides (though concentration camp operators, mob bosses, and Serbians seldom earn any sympathy). Often there’s very little to choose between pursuer and pursued: assassins may be self-sacrificing patriots and the (usually) intelligence or military pursuer may be self-serving. And don’t forget the women. Most are strong and competent, often condescending to their more emotional male colleagues, who don’t match their skills or dedication. The wives of the pursuers are generally long-suffering and loyal to a fault. These characters are all real people, and you feel for them.

Most Seymour plots follow a crime/chase/confrontation pattern. But they are intricate and detailed, generally falling into a parallel-plot pattern, with all strands finally coming together at the climax. They are generally believable and always terrifically suspenseful. In fact, the level of suspense is, in my experience, unsurpassed. But let me be more specific.

The 1987 Eye for an Eye brings together not two but three strong men, a young Brit from the foreign service, a Palestinian assassin, and a sniper with failing vision. The title refers most obviously to the young agent’s quest to avenge the murder of his girlfriend, also an agent, portrayed as supremely confident and competent, to the point of being dismissive of her boyfriend’s fitness for the job at hand. Part of the young agent’s motivation for revenge is to prove to himself his own abilities.

The Palestinian, devoting his life to his cause, is illiterate but a born leader. His inexperience has allowed him to become infatuated with a woman whom he perceives as simply a “foreigner” but who is in fact a Mossad agent and Baader-Meinhof survivor. Seymour’s even-handedness allows him to present the young Palestinian as insecure and needing to prove himself. The almost joking meaning of “eye for an eye” involves the failing vision of the sniper who accompanies the young Brit in quest of the Palestinian freedom fighter and who finally must target and kill the prey, substituting the agent’s eyes for his own. The attenuated climax of the plot describes the arduous, almost superhuman trek through the Afghani wasteland by the two pursuers. The final confrontation is anticlimactic. The reader never knows until the final pages whether one, two, or in this case three principals survive. Seymour’s “heroes” need not survive, for their creator does not write sequels, has no continuing characters. And I’m not giving anything away either.

Among the interesting facets of Eye is the portrayal of the British Prime Minister. In 1987, when the novel was published, Margaret Thatcher held the office, and Seymour, not wishing, I’m sure, to attribute to her the words he puts in the his PM’s mouth, leaves the character’s gender ambiguous. It’s very subtly done--you wouldn’t notice what he’s doing if you weren’t looking. (I was.)

The 1995 Heart of Danger (my biggest quibble with Seymour is that most of his titles are pretty generic and hence difficult to remember) once more depicts a callow British agent, this time seeking the killer of a young Englishwoman caught in a Serbian massacre of Croat villagers. Again, the pursued is a true believer convinced that the murder of his lifelong neighbors is the right thing to do. The plot strands include the discovery by an elderly British intelligence operative of the whole story and the machinations of the UN peace-keepers, who ultimately betray the pursuer because their “peace-keeping” does not include the capture of war criminals. Add in the heroic woman and you get all the most familiar plot elements, but combined so cunningly as to generate extreme suspense.

The Untouchable (2000) begins as the story of the eponymous crime lord of London. Again, typically, a young English agent becomes obsessed with capturing him, follows him to Bosnia, where the Serbians are this time massacring their Muslim neighbors by planting land mines in their fields. After this second trip to Bosnia, I felt not only well-informed about the conflict there but also repelled by its mindless brutality. The details, the historical context, are all there and suggest Seymour’s growing contempt for war and its purveyors—here the mobsters and the partisan “heroes” who are literally one and the same. War is engineered by the cynical manipulation of an ignorant peasantry, led to slaughter their neighbors and elevate to power the blood-thirsty warlords who control the black market that is the country’s principal economy.

Seymour’s growing sense of outrage at the human condition is taken a further step in his 2008 Time Bomb. The book brings together the concentration camps of World War II, the collapse of the Soviet (now Russian) economy, and the dire straits of most Eastern Europeans in the early twenty-first century. Seymour also adds an element to his plotting: the vaudeville team of two elderly Russian army officers, now retired. These two have stolen a nuclear warhead and are attempting to sell it to the highest bidder, in this case London’s Russian-Jewish mafia, who plan to sell it to Middle Eastern jihadists. Seymour was approaching seventy when this novel was published, and as his characters, too, grow older, his burgeoning sense of history emerges more and more clearly. The mob’s enforcer is the grandson of a Sobibor survivor, and that camp is starkly portrayed, as are the effects of internment not only on the survivors themselves but on their children and grandchildren. As in Art Spiegelman’s  Maus, the camp experiences do not make one more resilient (a common myth: what does not kill you makes you stronger) but rather so crippled, emotionally, that only fear and paranoia survive.

The British agent speaks for Seymour on the last page of Time Bomb: “If you haven’t been there and haven’t heard the stories, it isn’t possible to understand the present.” Gerald Seymour has been there. He was a journalist in several war zones, including Vietnam and Northern Ireland. And he’s heard the stories and retells them to us in all their complexity, both moral and artistic. I intend to take the journey with him as long as he continues to tell the stories.


Noel Mawer has a Ph.D. in English from Bryn Mawr College and is the author of A Critical Study of the Fiction of Patricia Highsmith: From the Psychological to the Political (Studies in American Literature V. 65 (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press). She has previously been a book reviewer for Utopian Studies and is the Book Review Editor for Lost Coast Review


Code Name: Caleb

John A. Bray

Avignon Press, 2012

Reviewed by Casey Dorman


Being in the middle of tutoring my teenage niece on U.S. History and having just watched the new Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln, I was more eager than I usually would have been to read a Civil War spy thriller. Code Name: Caleb  by John A. Bray is no political thriller, but a fairly plausible and remarkably historically accurate tale about a young Union soldier recruited to perform clandestine activities among the Southern sympathizing “Copperheads” of New York.

Although Code Name: Caleb is not billed as a young adult book, the story to which it seemed most similar was the classic revolutionary war story, Esther Forbes’  Johnny Tremain.  Unlike the youthful Johnny Tremain, Johnny Madigan, the hero of Code Name: Caleb is a young man, his age being indefinite, but probably in his late teens or early twenties and the adventures in which he participates are highly dangerous, requiring Johnny to become a killer himself, although always in self-defense. The activities of the Copperheads are true to history, consisting of counterfeiting, arson, and stealing and smuggling arms, sometimes in collusion with Southerners working in Canada.

The Union had an extensive espionage and counterespionage service during the Civil War, as did the Confederacy. Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus allowed those suspected by the counterespionage service of spying to be jailed indefinitely without a trial. In what appears to be the time-honored way of spy services throughout history and up to the present, the Union intelligence service played fast and loose with the laws in their pursuit of behind the lines spies and terrorists. In fact, opposition to Lincoln’s war, particularly following the Emancipation Proclamation, which made the abolition of slavery a prominent issue in the North’s prosecution of the war, was widespread and public in many areas of the north and especially among some groups, such as the Irish. Opposition to the draft in New York included not only riots and arson, but the lynching of blacks.

Author Bray manages to capture the flavor of the era in his depiction of the New York working class.  Johnny Madigan’s identity as a Union spy must be kept much more secret than his supposed opposition to the draft and the war,  an attitude which is common in his neighborhood and workplace. We are given a keen insight into the mindset of those who opposed the war, although living in the North.

Code Name: Caleb is also a love story and in fact, not a simple one. While Johnny cherishes his young, innocent courtship of his childhood love, Deidre, he is attracted to the seductive Letitia, the granddaughter of the mastermind of the Copperhead illicit activities in New York City. Letitia herself is a complicated woman, unsure where her loyalties lie, politically, and torn between obedience to her grandfather and her yearning for Johnny.  The romantic subplot of Code Name: Caleb provides an entertaining sidelight to the story and contributes its own share of suspense. A discreetly described love scene is probably tame enough to allow the novel to be read by older teens.

I enjoyed Code Name: Caleb. It is a sequel to the earlier, Ballad of Johnny Madigan, which is available from Amazon as both a paperback and Kindle book, but which I have not read. I have a strong suspicion that the real audience for Code Name: Caleb will be older teens and young adults who are looking for a character in their own age range and a rollicking adventure story, which hast the added attraction of bringing the history they are probably having to study in school alive to them in an exciting way.

Code Name: Caleb is available in paperback from Avignon Press and as a Kindle eBook from BeWrite books.


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