There are few better ways for the crime writer to investigate the complexities of character than through a spy: a spy creates their character much like an author does, trying to inhabit their character whilst maintaining their authenticity. A spy has to create a persona that is believable and consistent to the point that they are completely trusted. It must be a curious thing to invent a character that is themselves inventing a character. The writer has in this case, has to ensure that the spy they give life to can navigate the page so that we the reader can witness they acting whilst it doesn’t appear to be acting to the rest of the written cast. It is a piece of pure creative trickery – and despite the spy being ever popular in fiction – it is a character that is surprisingly hard to convincingly conceive.
In Battle Sight Zero, we meet Andy Knight. Andy’s name is not really Andy Knight and never shall we learn what his real name is. His real self is largely unknown and the details of his life remain off the page. We follow him as he infiltrates a terror network and as he establishes a relationship with a young woman who is being indoctrinated to the Jihadi cause. Zeinab is intelligent and passionate, although seemingly slightly naïve of the gravity of her extremist commitment. She is tasked to journey to France to bring back an AK-47 rifle back into the UK, testing the waters to see if a smuggling route can be established. From this starting point we follow a myriad of characters as the day of the deal closes in. We watch from several persons perspectives as the plot unravels. Our protagonist, Andy, is tasked with seeming a dutiful, romantically inclined confidant to Zeinab whilst trying to gain information on the deal and navigating the ethics of establishing relations with a suspect.
On top of this, succession of insights from all sorts of interested parties, there is also an intertwining back story of the AK-47 itself. The gun almost becomes a character and we watch from its inception in a factory as it travels through a destructive and blood-thirsty life. It fires off in many of the seminal showdowns of 20th century history. It falls from several hands as its owners tumble down and die underneath it and always it is scrapped up, brushed off and it carries on.
With all this variety of narrative the story is dense in perspective. Every page break is another face with another motive and another plot progression. In this respect I can see how Gerald Seymour has come to be respected in his genre. There is undoubtedly a vast amount of skilful plotting here as each character dances towards the crescendo. On top of this, Seymour, has filled the book with a vast amount of sharp detail, down to the production of the weapon, the street names in Marseille to the critical details of the battles of the 20th Century Europe. The research involved has been extensive and dedicated, however it is dense. The fractured perspectives, multiple characters and dwelling on detail is clever, but somewhat slows the book. The amount of detail packed into this novel somewhat distracts from character development and the shady Andy stays forever shady, seldom offering the insight into his character that would hook the reader. In retains the visage of a spy, a character of deception and distraction, but seldom gives us enough to truly invest in him. In the density of characters in this book there is seldom any time to get to know anyone and that might the plot if it was action-packed, but this plot is based on suspense and suspense truly needs to deliver a sense of vulnerability to the reader that makes their teeth chatter. Andy’s vulnerability is his diminishing ability to avoid stepping over the ethical lines that dictate his job. He gets closer to Zeinab and their relationship drifts towards the sexual that would undermine both of their positions as spy and jihadist respectively. This examination of Andy’s drift into sexual exploitation of Zeinab is done so casually and seldom comes to a conclusion as to whether Andy’s ends justified the means, and this is not rectified at the conclusion as several of our characters meet nihilistically, sticky-ends.
There is a lot to admire in this book and undoubtedly it has been a big project for its author, but some of its complexities seemed to slow the plot down and give us less time with the key characters than one would want. It’s tale of one weapon’s possibilities in destruction is well-explored and relevant to our times, but our protagonist sometimes played second-fiddle to the gun. At times one thinks our spy was a little too good at covering his tracks and a little too remote to truly get to know; sometimes, you just need to peak behind the façade despite how hard they try not to let you.
Battle Sight Zero is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is available here.
Gerald Seymour exploded onto the literary scene in 1975 with the massive bestseller HARRY’S GAME. The first major thriller to tackle the modern troubles in Northern Ireland, it was described by Frederick Forsyth as ‘like nothing else I have ever read’ and it changed the landscape of the British thriller forever.
Gerald Seymour was a reporter at ITN for fifteen years. He covered events in Vietnam, Borneo, Aden, the Munich Olympics, Israel and Northern Ireland. He has been a full-time writer since 1978.
Reviewed by Jessica Gregory
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