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Shades of John le Carre
on 4 September 2005
In the aftermath of the recent London Transport bombings, THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER has a topical theme.
Caleb is a terrorist wannabe - a graduate of an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. But his bad luck resulted in his capture by American troops and incarceration at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where for many months he successfully maintained the cover of being a simple taxi diver caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Finally, released as a PR gesture and returned to Afghanistan under guard, Caleb escapes before he can be handed over to the Afghani Security Service, and immediately starts the long journey to rejoin his Al Qaeda "family" now holed up in the Rub' al Khali desert of Saudi Arabia, otherwise known as the "Empty Quarter". Because Caleb is not an Arab, but rather an Outsider, he's to be given a special mission.
There is little in the way of "thriller" in THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER, a variance from the usual Gerald Seymour novel that may put off some of his fans. Rather, this novel resembles those penned by John le Carre in that it's relatively heavy on character development (Caleb's) and the sometimes plodding nature of intelligence work, and short on sustained action. Indeed, most of the plot involves Caleb's torturous camel journey across the searing hot Empty Quarter in the company of three other Al Qaeda foot soldiers, a Bedouin guide, and the latter's young son - all dedicated to delivering their precious charge to the organization's remote HQ. The opposition is represented by Marty and Lizzy-Jo, two young CIA operatives searching the Rub' al Khali for evidence of terrorists with cameras mounted on the remotely-controlled Predator drones they fly out of a remote desert base, the CIA's station chief in Riyadh, Juan Gonsalves, Juan's MI6 counterpart, Eddie Wroughton, who finds himself on the short end of the Anglo-American "special relationship", and Jed Dietrich, Caleb's Defense Intelligence Agency interrogator back in Gitmo. Jed was on vacation when the CIA and the FBI decided to cut Caleb loose, and now, after belatedly winkling out a clue as to the taxi driver's true identity, Jed is determined to rectify that mistake regardless of the peril to his career by being the bearer of bad news to his superiors.
I'm awarding THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER four stars because I've long been an admirer of the le Carre's style, which eschews sensationalism. However, in consciously or unconsciously emulating le Carre, Seymour has done something I've not seen in any of his other books, i.e., leave a glaring loose end that would seem to invite a sequel. But, since that's not been the author's style to date, I fear I'm left here with a book that has a somewhat unsatisfying ending. In all other respects, however, THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER is vintage Seymour in that it contains real-world characters engaged in a struggle that results in a Pyrrhic victory, if indeed victory is achieved at all.