BEIRUT: The plot of a good spy thriller often involves wrongdoing not just on an individual but a national scale. After all, despotic regimes have endless resources at their disposal, making them the ultimate baddies. In “Shemlan: A Deadly Tragedy,” the final installment of a trilogy of action-packed thrillers set in Jordan, Lebanon and the region, author Alexander McNabb’s complex storyline revolves around a 40-year-old deception, the discovery of which will have negative consequences for some very powerful people indeed. In fact, it risks dealing a severe blow to the reputation of the United States.
The novel marks the return of Irish spy Gerald Lynch, a middle-aged, whiskey-swilling womanizer whose 20 years in Beirut have left him with a disregard for human life and an authority problem. This time he is accompanied by an unusual sidekick in the form of Jason Hartmoor, a disgraced British diplomat and terminal cancer patient.
With a matter of weeks left to live, Hartmoor decides to return to Beirut, where he had spent time in the late 1970s studying at the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies – a language school run by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the mountain village of Shemlan – before the escalating violence of the Civil War caused him to be recalled to Britain.
MECAS, known to the Lebanese as the British Spy School, closed in 1978. Today the building houses an orphanage, as Hartmoor finds when he returns to Beirut on the verge of death, hoping to see Mai, the daughter of a Lebanese restaurateur with whom he fell passionately in love during his time in Lebanon.
Unfortunately for Hartmoor, his return to Beirut does not go unnoticed by CIA agent Dennis Wye and his uneasy ally, business mogul and Estonian mafia don Jaan Kallas. Kallas sets a pair of deadly Estonian hit men on Hartmoor’s trail, and it’s up to Lynch to keep him safe as he tries to figure out what Hartmoor knows that’s so threatening to U.S. interests.
McNabb’s complex plot takes readers from the peace of the Welsh seaside town of Newgale to the hectic underworld of Beirut, featuring Shatila-based crime lords and Monnot brothels madams, then on to the surveillance state of prewar Syria, before the dramatic climax, which includes an original take on the time-honored car chase trope that takes place on an Estonian ice bridge in the dead of night.
The clash of Lebanese, British, American, Syrian and Estonian characters, each with their own interests and allegiances, is fertile fodder for a well-thought-out plot twist or two that will keep readers guessing. Almost equally grandiose in scale, “Shemlan” is nevertheless more believable than the rather overblown second installment of McNabb’s trilogy “Beirut: An Explosive Thriller.”
McNabb even addresses the total lack of professionalism displayed by Lynch in the previous book by opening with him back in London having been called up for a review, which he promptly fails.
Luckily for him, it seems that the FCO have no one else even remotely competent to take his place, as after being denounced as a “willful maverick” and told that “we have processes and procedures to follow,” he informs his superior that “you won’t get by in the Middle East with process” and is sent back out into the field, where he continues to drink, screw and kill a bewildering number of people.
Although lacking the unusual first-person voice that gave McNabb’s sophomore effort, “Olives: A Violent Romance,” its unique flavor and allowed for the reader to be left in the dark along with the narrator, the author achieves a similar effect by contrasting the ruthlessly efficient Lynch with the clueless Hartmoor, who is blissfully unaware of his own crucial role in having facilitated Kallas’ rise to power.
For the most part well written – McNabb has a talent for original but evocative similes – “Shemlan” is a fast-paced and engaging read. The dialogue is occasionally problematic. Several of the British and a couple of the Lebanese characters sound like they’re stuck in the 1950s, while Lynch appears to have taken up saying “so and it is” frequently since the previous book, perhaps to emphasize his Irish background.
Readers will need to be willing to suspend disbelief. One particularly entertaining scene features Lynch performing an escape act to rival Houdini, extracting himself and the frail Hartmoor from an SUV full of armed gunmen by somehow severing the twist tie binding his wrists together with a pair of stolen nail clippers before any of them get it together to shoot him.
An enjoyable read for fans of action-packed intrigue, “Shemlan: A Deadly Tragedy” lives up to its title as McNabb ruthlessly does away with his characters one by one. Fans of his previous two books will find “Shemlan” follows in the same vein, while those who have not read the preceding volumes will have no trouble following the action of this stand-alone thriller.
Alexander McNabb’s “Shemlan: A Deadly Tragedy” is available in paperback and digital format from amazon.com.