Fresh Meat: The Dealer and the Dead by Gerald Seymour

The Dealer and the Dead by Gerald Seymour
The Dealer and the Dead by Gerald Seymour
The Dealer and the Dead is the 27th international thriller by Gerald Seymour, featuring a small Croatian village that plans its revenge for decades following a deadly betrayal by an arms dealer (available February 11, 2014).

Gerald Seymour’s novels are set all over the globe. From South Africa (A Song in the Morning) to Guatemala (The Fighting Man) to Kuwait (Condition Black), no place is too far-flung for one his thrillers, which often use historical events as jumping off points for his fictional plots. But even for Seymour, the setting for The Dealer and the Dead is a bit remote. It’s as if he challenged himself to weave a suspenseful plot from the unlikeliest of locales. I mean, what could possibly happen in a tiny, rural, unnamed Croatian village that could send deadly reverberations across Europe, nineteen years after the fact?

Well, when that village is in the middle of the Croatian-Serbian war, all it takes is one act of betrayal. The Dealer and the Dead opens with this perfidious act, as four villagers wait in a deserted cornfield for an arms delivery that never arrives. The weapons, paid for with a collection of village valuables, were crucial to the town’s defense against Serbian forces. Without them, the four villagers die grizzly deaths, and the village is quickly defeated and ransacked.

Seymour then jumps forward nineteen years, introducing a dozen or so seemingly unrelated characters in modern-day England and Croatia. These characters include— but are by no means limited to—a professional hit man, a retired SIS officer, a research analyst at a nonprofit agency, a Croatian widow, and a forensic scientist investigating potential war crimes.

The contemporary plot is set in motion when the bodies of the four abandoned villagers are discovered and the name of the arms dealer who welshed on the deal is found in one of the dead man’s pockets. After two decades, the villagers finally have a name to attach to their long-burning hatred: Harvey Gillot. Another collection is then taken up by the village, this one to pay for the contract on Gillot’s life.

Trying to piece together how Seymour will connect all of these disparate dots makes for a compelling first act. What this structure lacks in traditional suspense is more than made up for by how well the numerous characters are developed. In brief snapshots, Seymour captures their unique psychologies and histories, while never allowing any of them to become clichés or caricatures.

The book’s major flaw, though, emerges in the second act. Once it becomes clear just how these characters will come together, Seymour spends far too much time getting us to that point. Even if we don’t know exactly how it will all play out, we know where it’s headed for a long time (I’m being vague to avoid spoilers). This delay has the effect of sapping momentum from what is a great set-up. Cutting a decent-sized chunk from the middle section would have upped the urgency of the story, without sacrificing any nuance or character development. How one feels about The Dealer and the Dead will depend on the patience and sensibility of each reader. Some will enjoy lingering over each character’s journey in this middle section, while others will want the plot to get moving.

The final act goes a long way in redeeming the prolonged second act. With so many characters and plotlines to resolve, the reader is kept guessing right until the very end. It is much to Seymour’s credit that he never tips his hand, either. His focus doesn’t get ahead of itself, remaining where it should be, on each character’s present set of unique circumstances.

Seymour’s writing is flinty and vigorous throughout, his descriptions offering just the right amount of ornamentation. Here an outsider describes a villager who seems different from the others, who are still devastated by the war:

“He didn’t have the same worn, scarred tiredness in his eyes, or the lines acid-etched around the mouth or scrawniness at this throat. She had seen the scars on Simun’s father’s body, and had stared at the folded trouser leg at Andrija’s knee. Then there was Tomislav’s shrine, and she had been in the kitchen where Petar and his wife lived but couldn’t speak to one another. There was a light in this one’s face.”

Or this passage, where the laws of the street are explained:

“It was the kernel of what he had to say. Didn’t know why he’d taken so long getting there. He wouldn’t have considered going gentle on the kid because of family. In the world of Granddad Cairns the most important factor was money. Men were paid, men did not deliver, men went into concrete and always had. Might be the flyover at Chiswick, or the foundations of the Dome, or the support towers of the new Olympics site. Money had been paid and lodged in an account, and he knew it because the paper slip from the cash machine had told him so. To be paid and to break faith in a deal was a death sentence, and to have to pay back the money was a humiliation he doubted he’d survive.”

The Dealer and the Dead, though, is ultimately concerned with the concept of obligation, and the consequences that arise from it. The most obvious example is Gillot’s breach of obligation in delivering the weapons to the village. But it is also the unifying theme for the broader set of characters, all of whom are motivated by what they deem to be their professional duty. Finally, there is the question of what the village owed the four men who died in a cornfield nineteen years ago. Whether that debt has been paid, and whether that payment will allow the village to break free of the bitter history they have been clinging to for so long, are questions that linger with the reader long after the last page has been turned.  

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Court Haslett is the author of Tenderloin, a crime novel set in 1970's San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @courthaslett and at The Rogue Reader.

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