BEIRUT: When reading a novel with a first-person narrator, no matter how selfish, inept or unsympathetic, readers are likely to find themselves rooting for the protagonist.
Paul Stokes, the incompetent though well-meaning violence-magnet who narrates British author Alexander McNabb’s self-published first novel “Olives: A Violent Romance,” is no exception.So it takes a certain authorial ruthlessness to kill off the character in the opening pages of the novel’s sequel, “Beirut: An Explosive Thriller,” published late last year.
The latest in a planned trilogy of thrillers set in Jordan and Lebanon, McNabb’s sophomore effort is linked to first by the return of Gerald Lynch, a cynical Northern Irish spy (or British Intelligence Officer) working in Beirut.
Like Stokes, Lynch is not a particularly likeable character. In “Olives,” he’s portrayed as a bully at best, and at worst a manipulative blackmailer with little regard for human life. His character doesn’t much improve in “Beirut” – particularly when, in the opening scene, it is revealed that he is responsible (albeit inadvertently) for Stokes’ corpse ending up rotting gruesomely in an abandoned villa.
“Beirut” is more fast-paced and flashy than the reflective, carefully crafted “Olives.” Shifting the location from Jordan to Lebanon allows the author to delve into the country’s complex political and religious makeup, this time focusing not on Israeli-Palestinian relations and Jordanian access to water, but on the tangled threads suffusing British and French intelligence, Lebanese-Israeli relations and U.S. interests in the region.
The dramatic – at times slightly hard to swallow – plot revolves around a diabolical Lebanese politician and presidential hopeful, Michel Freij, son of an infamous warlord responsible for a string of assassinations during Lebanon’s Civil War.
Freij ostensibly wishes to dissolve sectarian divides in the country and promote a spirit of national unity through his “One Lebanon” party. Lynch discovers that he’s also purchased two forgotten Soviet-era nuclear warheads, which he intends to smuggle to Beirut aboard a luxury yacht, for ends that are initially unclear.
Driven by reasons that are more personal than professional, Lynch is determined to thwart Freij’s plans and along the way he is variously helped and hindered by a vast array of secondary characters.
As the plot develops, Lynch does exhibit some signs of remorse for the trail of battered corpses he leaves in his wake. Although he is undoubtedly a violent, womanizing alcoholic – one prone to a spot of torture before he dispatches his enemies in the name of revenge – McNabb somehow ensures that he retains a smidgen of humanity, allowing readers to empathize with him at least part of the time.
In “Olives” Lynch is introduced as “a handsome-looking fifty-something, with a catlike surety of movement,” who sweats copiously, smells of stale alcohol and aftershave and finds himself funnier than everybody else does. In “Beirut,” Lynch is revealed to be unexpectedly – and inexplicably – irresistible to women.
Like James Bond, he is constantly propositioned by beautiful young things, all of whom seem to have flawless olive skin, ample bosoms, luscious dark hair and slumberous green eyes, but little or no personality other than a tendency to sulky displays of temper.
Unlike Bond, Lynch lacks a sharp suit, a briefcase full of gadgets, a winning catchphrase and bucket loads of charisma. Perhaps it’s his bitterness, anger and self-loathing that attract these beautiful, cliched women. Maybe it’s simply his Ulster accent.
Operating in a way unlikely to be condoned by the British government – drinking copiously, torturing and killing suspects, sleeping with colleagues and revealing his identity and profession to all and sundry, on top of refusing to use his government issue car and phone – Lynch grimly closes in on his prey, risking his life several times in the process.
In spite of his unconventional work ethic, Lynch enjoys a privileged position as the British government’s only intelligence operative in Beirut. The fact that, in spite of this (and his 20 years of service in the Middle East), he doesn’t appear to speak much Arabic further detracts from the believability of his having risen to such a position.
Skipping giddily from Beirut to London, Hamburg to Prague, Malta to Albania and back via the Greek Islands, McNabb’s storyline contains all the de rigueur elements of a spy thriller – from beautiful women to despotic billionaires, explosions to helicopter crashes, double-crossing officials to loyal brothel madams.
Unfortunately it lacks the unpredictability of McNabb’s first novel, which is replete with adroitly handled twists and three-dimensional characters that make the high drama believable.
It is clear that McNabb – who is currently based in Dubai – has more than a passing acquaintance with Lebanon. Though the novel is less informative when it comes to regional history and politics than “Olives,” McNabb still manages to impart a strong sense of Beirut, which he describes with equal parts frustration and fondness.
The elaborate plot and plethora of characters in “Beirut,” however, mean the focus is more on the logistics of Freij’s warmongering efforts than it is the likelihood of such an attempt being made in Lebanon’s current climate.
Distractions such as the caricatured villain – who is prone to raping young women – captaining the yacht used to transport the deadly cargo, and Freij’s penchant for leaving notes in handwritten calligraphy on his victims’ bodies further detract from the believability of McNabb’s premise.
In spite of its drawbacks, “Beirut: An Explosive Thriller” is gripping and attention-grabbing, providing readers are willing to suspend their disbelief and lose themselves in the story.
Those looking for nonstop action, political intrigue, smatterings of sex and violence and explosions aplenty need look no further. Those hoping for a believable storyline and insight into Lebanon’s political climate will want to continue the search.
Alexander McNabb’s “Beirut: An Explosive Thriller” is available in paperback and digital format from www.amazon.com.