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Disinterring the past
on 20 June 2004
When revisiting past crimes, be careful what you wish for.
In 1988, the British Army Intelligence Unit in West Berlin, in an unauthorized operation, recruits a young East Berliner, Hans Becker. The go-between is a 22-year old I Corps junior stenographer, Corporal Tracy Barnes, who becomes Becker's lover. Becker is sent by his controller to East Germany's Baltic coast to glean information from radar base signals. There, Hans is captured and brutally murdered by Stasi Counter Espionage Captain Dieter Krause. Barnes suspects Krause's guilt, but can't prove it. And Hans remains the first and only man that Tracy has ever slept with.
Now, it's a decade later. The Berlin Wall is rubble, Germany is re-united, and Dieter Krause is the new darling of the German intelligence service, the BfV, because of the information he can provide on an old friend, Russian Army Colonel Pyotr Rykov, who's the influential personal assistant to the Russian Defense Minister. The Germans are showing Krause off, first to the Brits, then the Yanks. However, during a visit to the I Corps base in Ashford, Kent, Dieter is recognized by Barnes, who physically attacks him. Clapped into the base guardhouse, Tracy is interrogated by a veteran SIS man sent down from London, Albert Perkins of German Desk, but he gets nothing. Released from detention, Barnes goes to Germany to unearth the evidence to bring Dieter down. She's accompanied by Josh Mantle, a solicitor's clerk persuaded to the task by Tracy's mother. Josh, at 54, was once of I Corps, then of the Royal Military Police. Stubbornly his own man and awkwardly dedicated to principles, Mantle was discarded by the Army at the end of the Cold War. Now, he's tired and on the ash heap of imminent old age. Against his better judgement, but always for the underdog, Tracy's dangerous mission demands his participation.
THE WAITING TIME at first begins as a relatively simple tale of long-delayed justice. Well, ok, vengeance. But "simplistic" is never an apt description of Gerald Seymour's thrillers. Tracy's implacable, single-minded quest becomes almost a sideshow as Perkins, following Barnes and Mantle to Germany, has his own agenda to put the upstart BfV back into "its place". And another scarred veteran of the Cold War, the iron-haired and intimidating Olive Harris of the SIS Russian Desk, convinces the MI6 wallahs to activate her own scheme, i.e. to topple Pyotr Rykov (which would render Krause's humint pretty much valueless).
I'm a huge fan of Seymour's novels. But, in THE WAITING TIME, I reluctantly suggest that the plot is too complicated. He should've left out the Harris gambit and focused solely on Perkins, Mantle, Barnes, and Krause. When Olive arrives in Moscow to administer the coup de grace to Rykov, the local SIS station head asks, "Why are we mounting a hostile operation against Pyotr Rykov? ... Your game is the immediate destruction of a fine man." That just about says it all, and perhaps the only usefulness of the subplot is to illustrate that "our side" (and the gentler sex) can be just as ruthless as "their side" when it comes to destroying a man.
Seymour's forte is showing that victory is often Pyrrhic. The most tragic victor of this story is undoubtedly Mantle, self-crucified on the Cross of Principle. You might think that role would be Tracy's, but, as the reader learns in a surprise ending, she's not what she appears to be through 99% of the novel.
Overall, a jolly good show. But it could have been tighter.