Saturday, 8 August 2009

“The Alamut Ambush”, Anthony Price

Anthony Price is one of these authors whose popularity in the 1960s and 1970s has sadly not proved persistent into the new century. Now, with just a few of his books in print through Orion's Crime Masterworks series finding his work is a case of luck in libraries and earnestly hunting through charity shops.

This is a real pity. At his best, with books such as "Other Paths to Glory", his writing is compelling and the fusion of history and Cold War espionage provides an interesting and informative new angle on the well trodden terrain of spy fiction. At other times he doesn't quite fire on all cylinders, and you somehow have to be in the humour for him. "The Alamut Ambush" is one of these 'not quite' sort of books. It's been lurking on the bookshelf for well over a year now, teetering on the brink of going back to the charity shop and joining the ranks of abandon-ware. Thankfully, largely down to happenstance, it coming to hand when idly looking for something to read, and, prosaically, it easily fitting in my pocket, it got a second chance.

Set in the early 1970s against the backdrop of the Arab-Israeli conflict the atmosphere of Britain at that time is richly captured. The setting is one of tired tawdriness, Britain still has aspirations and a role to play, but it's starting to look a little shabby and threadbare.

The core character, RAF pilot and intelligence officer Hugh Roskill, is a rich and well rounded character. The intersection of personal and professional interest as he unpicks the murder of a young intelligence technician and links it with the complexities of Middle Eastern politics provides pace to the novel and keeps the reader consistently interested as he moves through London clubland at night and the rainy Hampshire countryside. The underlying plot, of a nascent Israeli-Egyptian rapprochement as terrorism rises to be the means of interaction between Arab and Jew is prescient, coming as it does, well before the Camp David accords, and reflects the political ambiguities and shifting allegiances running beneath what often can seem a blunt zero sum conflict.

Price often leaves the bigger picture unstated, focusing on what individuals do and leaving the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps. This works effectively here, the details of the wider conspiracy, the precise threat posed by the 'Alamut' group (which will come as no real surprise to those familiar with history of the region) and the 'ambush' of the title, are largely left unsaid, and this makes them all the more real, and allows Price to build up a story of real and engaging depth in a scant 189 pages.

This probably isn't the best of Price's books, but I'm still very glad to have had another go at it. It's a shame his work is now so hard to find. In the endorsements on the back he's likened to Eric Ambler, and there are certainly echoes of this here, and there are also notes of John LeCarre, with parts feeling very similar to some of his John Smiley works and "The Honourable Schoolboy" in particular. If you happen to stumble across one of his books, most likely these days in a jumble sale or dusty second hand bookshop, you could do a lot worse than give him a go.

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