Review: Beside the Syrian Sea by James Wolff

Beside the Syrian Sea

James Wolff

May 15, 2018

Beside the Syrian Sea is a debut novel and a contemporary spy thriller set in and around Beirut.

These days, reading classic spy novels of the “British intelligence during the Cold War” variety gives us a comforting distance from reality. The Cold War was a long time ago. It can seem almost quaint now.

Beside the Syrian Sea is a British intelligence spy novel with all the classic trappings but without that comforting distance. This is now. These things might be happening as we speak. There’s nothing quaint about any of it.

Jonas, the son of an Anglican clergyman, works in intelligence for the British government. He’s not a spy. He’s not a guy accustomed to working in the field. He analyzes information from his desk in London. If anything, his father is the more adventurous one. His father is the one who travels to far-flung locations on humanitarian missions. His father is the one who winds up being abducted from a café in Damascus.

[Jonas] had tried to blame his father for being reckless, but found he couldn’t do that…. He could only feel admiration for the spirit of adventure, undiminished by age, that had led a father to ignore a son’s advice, leave the confines of his hotel and wander out into a warm Damascus evening. He wasn’t seen for seven days after that. Then one morning he appeared in a grainy online photograph wearing a blindfold with his hands tied behind his back.

Shockingly (or perhaps not), the British government refuses to negotiate with the kidnappers for his release. If Jonas wants his father to be safely returned, he has little choice but to arrange a negotiation on his own using the only resources at his disposal.

In the end it was the Edward Snowden affair that made [Jonas] realize he possessed something of great value to the kidnappers, a currency more sought-after than cash: information. Jonas broke the law for the first time in his life at 11.15 one Tuesday morning. It was nine days after his father’s disappearance, thirty-six days before he left the building for the last time.

Armed with this “ransom,” Jonas heads to Beirut to meet with the people he believes will travel to Syria on his behalf, negotiate with the kidnappers, and secure his father’s release. Intelligence, by any definition, will only take you so far, however. Jonas must contend not only with duplicitous “good guys”—including the inevitable CIA—but also with myriad distraught and desperate individuals willing to sacrifice anything to achieve their goals. With each interaction, we see just how far out of his depth Jonas has traveled, working his common sense and courage to shreds knowing how unlikely it is that events will come to a tidy conclusion.

Dare I invoke John le Carré here? That’s an awfully heavy burden to place on a debut author, but the comparison is appropriate. Beside the Syrian Sea will appeal to readers who prefer their spy novels populated by imperfect characters on the heady side who still rely on old-school tradecraft.  In fact, the novel resonates with nostalgia for those good old/bad old days of espionage. (“Each day Jonas walked down the Beirut street that Kim Philby had been living on when he defected to the Russians,” we are told.)

James Wolff” is the pseudonym of an officer of the British government who has lived, studied, and worked in the Middle East. Promotional materials for Beside the Syrian Sea (a title taken from the hymn “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”) are careful to point out that “Wolff” had permission to publish the book and that the material has been vetted by “the proper authorities.” This is both reassuring and troubling. Reassuring in that the story is credible and authentic, not some wildly imagined escapade; troubling in that such things can and do happen. In fact, they might be happening as we speak. There’s nothing quaint about any of it.

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