“As Winston Churchill said, ‘If you are going through hell, keep going.'”
I posted about the first 200 pages of this, and finished the book quite soon after, but was absorbed in my move to WordPress. To recap: we open with a covert rescue operation which has disastrous consequences. Two men survive – John Porter, who is scarred (literally and mentally) by the fiasco, takes to the bottle and the London streets; and Peregrine Collinson (apparently people do have names like that), who rises through the ranks and is knighted. When a television darling is kidnapped in Beirut 20 years later, Porter finds an opportunity to get back into SAS life, but is thrown straight back into conflict with Collinson.
Ryan has a real knack for memorable protagonists. Porter is by no means perfect – an alcoholic ex-homeless man with an antagonistic and impetuous rescue style – but his heart is true and he loves his daughter dearly. All through the suicide mission he thinks of her and how he won’t see her again.
Hassad is an excellent foil for Porter – a bad guy with morals. He adapts to tricky situations in surprising ways and honours his word above all. Katie (the TV darling) is a bit of a non-character, but then there is no need for her to be very interesting – she is simply the prize to be reclaimed. There’s a spot of token combativeness but mostly she wafts about wanly in the background. Collinson is surprisingly absent from most of the story but as we are firmly on Porter’s side throughout, that doesn’t really matter either.
The plot is fantastic (in the fantasy sense, rather than the amazing sense), as usual, and there are a few too many close escapes from certain doom, but the military/survival stuff is interleaved with interpersonal conflict and uncertainty and deception. The opposition is multi-layered, providing interesting twists along the way and a bit of variation (it gets boring if the hero is constantly escaping from the same enemy). At the end, I thought “oh of course, so obvious…” but I hadn’t figured it out until then. Which I think is always a good sign for a book.
I can’t say it better than I already did: what I particularly enjoyed about Ryan’s writing when I churned through The Kremlin Device and The Watchman back in November is the no-nonsense style, mixed with a dark British sense of humour. There is plenty of weapons and fighting chat, but not so much that it becomes tedious. Daring rescues go wrong. Ryan isn’t afraid to let Porter use some un-PC language to carve out his character, and conveys the hopelessness of the homeless very effectively; ditto the shame of a failed soldier.
One touch that I particularly appreciated is the recurrence of a reworked version of Elton John’s Someone Saved My Life Tonight – as he did for Princess Diana’s funeral, Elton rewrites a much-loved song for a tragic situation in this novel. Porter hears it before he even knows what is going on, and he hears it again in Lebanon – much to the bemusement of the Hezbollah soldiers:
‘I don’t understand why they play this song all the time,’ said Nasri. ‘This Elton man, with the funny glasses, is he some sort of religious figure?’
A fun, light read with a heart.