Guns, geezers, girls and terrorists

DTK Molise is a blogger and crime fiction enthusiast who splits his time between London, Zurich and Kabul. His excellent site, Kabul Noir, looks at the dark side of life in the Afghan capital, including the connections between crime and politics.

I recently asked him to locate and review crime fiction set in Afghanistan. Given its history and everything that continues to happen in that troubled country, you’d have thought there’d be numerous crime writers basing stories there. Think again.

What follows is his review of two of the few books he found, A Hostile Place by John Fullerton (Macmillan, 2003) and The Network by Jason Elliot (Bloomsbury, 2010). I want to thank DTK Molise for doing these reviews and I look forward to him filling the void in crime fiction in this part of the world.

Whether the story is focused on corruption, terrorism, military activities, or top-secret papers being published by WikiLeaks, Afghanistan is rarely out of the news.

The country is awash with stories and as result the western public is kept up-to-date on the daily happenings in what should by all accounts be an obscure Central Asian Republic marginally better known than Kyrgyzstan.  Communist coups, decades of war, the final nail in the Soviet Union’s coffin, the growth of the Taliban, and now the seemingly never-ending military occupation led by NATO have all helped to create the sense that Afghanistan is an important country.

Where the media goes writers often follow.

As war, violence and political instability reign the reading public have been treated to a wide variety of non-fiction books focused on the politics of Afghanistan, the 1980’s Jihad, and the development of the Taliban, from outsiders to central government.

The story regarding fictional novels, however, has been far from stellar.  Literature set in Afghanistan invariably fall into two distinct camps:  the underwhelming, yet massively successful, social-commentary adventures such as Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns or the crash, bang, wallop of the military thriller arguably made most famous by Andy McNab, the British ex-Special Air Service (SAS) soldier.

When I was asked to write a review of Afghanistan-set thrillers I decided to put my faith in two books that seemed to stand out from the crowd due to their respective authors experiences and backgrounds.  John Fullerton, author of A Hostile Place, is an ex-Reuters journalist with experience covering the civil war in Lebanon, living with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the 1980s, and latterly reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan immediately after 9/11.  Jason Elliot, author of The Network, is an award-winning travel writer best known for his New York Times bestseller An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan, which depicted his travels around Afghanistan in the 1980s and 90s.

The Network begins five months before the twin towers are toppled by Al-Qaeda and follows the adventures of former army officer Anthony Taverner.   The book opens without any introduction of character but it becomes immediately clear that we are being taken though the story by the main character who is stuck somewhere on the Black Mountains near Hereford, England.   Part one continues for 36 pages in which time we are introduced to the undoubtedly arduous training exercises led by H, a mysterious ex-SAS officer.

Part two is the ostensible start of the story where Taverner is, somewhat opportunistically for the plot, led to a country pub by a beautiful Uzbek named Zibya where he is recruited by an ex-army officer nicknamed ‘Seethrough’ to the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).  After this, Taverner heads to London to meet the ‘Baroness’ who hints at her knowledge of Taverner’s father, talks in strange riddles, and makes clear that she was the person who ensured our hero’s recruitment to SIS.  Taverner then moves onto the headquarters of SIS, where he meets with Seethrough again before regaling the reader with snippets of pointless sub-Bond spycraft and technical jargon.   The story then continues with another 50 pages of introduction, initial training, and strange diversionary conversations between H and Taverner that go nowhere.

Part three serves as back-story where we find out about the family problems of Taverner, his history of being in Afghanistan in the 1980’s with his mysterious friend ‘Manny’, and his links with the Baroness and the eponymous Network.   He goes to America, meets an Islamist spy in Naples, and then somewhat strangely heads to Khartoum.  Once in Khartoum our hero ends up having a relationship with a Sudanese woman, who he is meant to be following but naturally falls in love with, before heading back to the UK after she is captured by the Sudanese Secret Police because of her links with British intelligence.

Finally, 250 pages into the 350 page book, Taverner, alongside his trainer H, heads to Peshawar in Pakistan and then on to Afghanistan.  Here they attempt to carry out their task of destroying a large cache of Stinger missile launchers that have been stolen by Al-Qaeda.  Taverner meets with Manny, who has been working deep undercover for a number of years, and then along with H they all attempt to destroy the Stinger’s.

As can be seen from the overview this story is strangely complex in formulation and requires a large effort to describe what actually happens.  There are many differing storylines that add little to the fundamental plot and the story gets bogged down in describing the training and meetings that Taverner undertakes.  There are, frankly, ludicrous sub-plots that do not make sense, with the foray to Sudan being a personal lowlight, or add little other than an additional location and further poorly developed characters.

The writing is relatively competent, although there is far too much focus on describing events as they happen – description in itself is rarely interesting, especially if it takes up three-quarters of the book.  The first-person narrative is also a huge problem.  The purpose of such a narrator is to enable the reader to understand the mind of the main character in more detail than is possible through a third-person narrator, but due to the limiting effects of this technique the main character needs to be fully realised or the story will suffer as a result.

Unfortunately I never got the impression that Taverner was anybody other than a cipher for the author.  The decision to write from the first-person limited the scope of the story and created a situation whereby I felt as if a rather irritating barroom drunk was informing me of Afghan history and SAS military techniques.

What is perhaps most unsatisfactorily about the story, however, is that beneath all the flaws lies an interesting premise.  The Network of the title refers to a shadow political structure that carries out tasks that limit (or undermine depending on your political viewpoint) the scope of national governments.  This idea could have been developed in a number of different ways yet it is only alluded to when the Baroness posits that the ambition of The Network is “not to change the world, but to influence it…by understanding rather than the application of external force”.

The idea of a self-appointed octogenarian Baroness deciding the future of random countries across the globe is deeply worrying but at least that idea would have been stimulating and more interesting than what is quite frankly a hotchpotch of ideas and storylines.  As much I appreciate that Elliot clearly knows Afghanistan The Network does not work as a thriller, military or otherwise, and is in bad need on both a rethink and an editor.

A Hostile Placeis mainly set about five or six months after 9/11.  The story follows another roguish British ex-army soldier called Thomas Morgan and begins with a description of being held captive by Taliban fighters in December 2001.  Morgan is freed by a Taliban commander called Abdur Rahman only to be forced into working on a secret mission by two British spies: Quilty, and his second in command Mathilde, on account of some previous illegal activity that he carried out in Kabul in 1996. 

Back on UK soil Morgan meets Rahman again, who is staying in London on government money and is supposedly now working for SIS.  His training lasts about two pages (a distinct difference to The Network) and then the story moves immediately back to Afghanistan where Morgan and his crew are tasked with killing ‘The Sheik’  (as Osama Bin Laden is sometimes known) with the help of the rogue Taliban commander Rahman.  Once back in Afghanistan the story revolves around Morgan’s relationship with Mathilde, who he is naturally engaging in a sexual relationship with, his hunt for Bin Laden and his opinions on the heroic, yet poor Afghan fighters, all mixed in with some social comment on the treatment of women.

Morgan grows a beard, puts on his shalwar kameez, and goes undercover in Afghanistan – this time masquerading as the supposedly dead British Talib known as Bilal.  It is not clear what Rahman is doing and whether he works just for the British or has his own agenda yet there is little sense of the confusion and chaos this would undoubtedly cause.  The book the ambles along at a rather slow pace and is littered with needless descriptions of the landscape and the thoughts of our hero.  Morgan then meets a fighter who Bilal is said to his to have known in the past.  It also turns out that he was supposed to marry this man’s daughter.  He meets his potential wife, which is frankly as silly as it sounds, and then before this strange detour can take place the house is placed under attack with Morgan escaping with another Afghan woman called Amarayn at the behest of his wife-to-be.  The rest of the story follows Morgan and Amarayn on their adventures searching for Bin Laden.  Why this hardened solider brings her along for the ride is never explained and the strange sexual tension that inexplicably develops would ensure this book would be burned if it were to be translated into Dari.

All in all, A Hostile Place is a tired collection of military thriller and Afghan fiction clichés.  It is poorly written and weakly characterised.  There is constant reference to pointless military jargon and the fact that our hero is using an AK-74 (yes I know its not an AK-47, I get it) must be mentioned about a hundred times.

The book is hampered by the decision to have the story driven by a first-person narrator.  Once again the character is not interesting enough to sustain this technique.  Morgan is as poorly developed as Taverner in this regard.  The narrative is also littered with irritatingly pompous statements such as “my enemies might be poor and ignorant, but they did not hate”, and romantic pronouncements about the honourable Afghan peasant fighters.  It is also horribly paced.  For a book about the search for, and attempted killing of, Osama Bin Laden A Hostile Place sure is incredibly dull.

I understand that Afghanistan, as a subject matter for fiction, is always going to attract the military thriller and it seems that publishers are reasonably confident that even poor quality books will sell.  My main problem specific to these books, and the Afghan military thriller in general, is the lack of ambition shown by the writers.

There seems to be a belief that focusing on macho posturing, military training and sexual relationships will somehow make a decent thriller.  This is simply not the case.  I want a thriller that has at least some focus on character, a real sense of place, and something that illustrates the lonely and often thankless tasks that these men and women undertake.  I long for the day when I get to read an Afghan-set thriller that relies on more than guns, geezers, girls and terrorists.

I long for something with heart.


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