It would be easy to say that the mere act of reviewing a novel based around a kidnapping by Middle Eastern terrorists seems to carry more weight today than it would have done before the events of Wednesday on Westminster Bridge. Easy, but false. No-one reads Chris Ryan’s novels for their profound political insights, and anyone trying to use this one from 2007 as a peg on which to hang their thoughts on terrorism probably hasn’t got much worth saying on the subject either. It’s entertainment – the real question is, does it entertain?
The answer is, yes it does, but at the price of straining your suspension of disbelief to the limit and beyond. I don’t believe for a minute that the events of this book could take place, and whilst the same is true of any James Bond film or anything starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name just two, at least they usually involve protagonists with charm and good one-liners. Ryan’s hero, John Porter, is a gruff, macho cardboard cut-out and you could throw a pint glass across the bar of your nearest pub and be sure of hitting someone wittier. (Just make sure you say “I’m adding a touch of glass!” with an Austrian accent as they crash to the ground with their head split open).
One advantage “Strike Back” does have over “Wildfire” is a plot that keeps the hero at the centre of events throughout. Porter is an ex-SAS trooper whose life went to hell when he was involved in a hostage rescue in Lebanon in which three of his colleagues were killed, deaths which were blamed on his refusal to kill a Hezbollah child-soldier in the process. Seventeen years later, he’s washed out of the Army as a result of the hostility he got, divorced, alcoholic, and living on the streets of London. Hanging around a hotel where he gets casual work, he sees a TV news story about Katie Dartmouth, a Sky News reporter who Hezbollah kidnapped a few days ago and are threatening to behead on a live internet feed unless the British Government agree to withdraw from Iraq. Incidentally, “Strike Back” later became a TV series broadcast on Sky, which I do not think was a coincidence.
Porter realises that Hezbollah’s spokesman is, in fact, the same guy he didn’t kill seventeen years before, and realises he has a chance to put right what previously went wrong, not to mention make a pile of money for his still-loyal daughter and so make up for being such a crap dad. So he walks up to MI6 Headquarters on the other side of the Thames and tells them – “I used to be in the SAS, me, and I know that Hezbollah bloke. Pay me a ton of dosh and I’ll go to Lebanon and rescue Katie Dartmouth!” And, of course, they all shout “Hoorah!” and agree.
I’m exaggerating, of course, but not by much. The British Government agree to let a homeless, middle-aged drunk go over to Lebanon to act as their one-man army. In theory, Porter is going to try and negotiate her release, but nobody who’s ever read this sort of novel would doubt that he’ll end up kicking arse. Given the fairly weak offer he’s sent to make (“Let her go – you’ve already had loads of publicity! And we could have peace talks. Or, you know, just pay you a few million bucks”), really no-one in the novel can doubt it either. This makes about as much sense as sending me, a middle-aged, overweight man with a bad knee, out to defeat ISIS single handed. On the down-side, I was never in the SAS. On the up-side, I haven’t been drinking a bottle of vodka every day and sleeping rough for years.
To be fair, the novel does try and show some effort being put into improving Porter’s pitiful physical condition in the few days they have available, but it’s just implausible that this would be enough. He seems to be able to (mostly) keep sober through sheer willpower too. I really don’t think alcoholism is that easy to shake off, and a real Porter would probably have got no further than the airport duty-free before shooting off on another bender.
The political background is also pretty unbelievable. Hezbollah, being a Shia Muslim group backed by Iran, is supposed to be doing this at the behest of the Iranians to get the British out of Shia-dominated southern Iraq, so the Iranians can become the dominant political force there, much as actually happened in reality after we did withdraw. But if they want to achieve that, why not get the Iraqi Shia militants, who in real life pulled off a string of kidnappings and murders of Westerners in Iraq during the years around the novel’s publication, to kidnap a well-known reporter? Why involve Hezbollah at all, given that the latter were kind of busy at the time? In 2006, they were involved in fighting along the Lebanese-Israeli border that led to a second Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and by 2008 they were deep into facing off with the then Lebanese Government. Was 2007 just not crisis-ridden enough for everyone’s favourite armed fundamentalists (Minority Tradition of a Major Religion category)?
There’s also a very weird moment, which is made a plot point, when Hassan, the former child-soldier, grateful to Porter for saving his life, calls him an “amiat al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun”, a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and elsewhere. It is one of the oldest Islamist political and religious groups, and it does have a presence in Lebanon, but it’s a Sunni group and Hassan is (presumably) a Shia. No doubt they share many viewpoints, but then so do fundamentalist Protestant groups in the US and traditionalist Catholics, and you’d still think it was strange if some fictional right-wing militia guy started referring to the Society of Pius X like it was the gold standard of fundamentalist Christianity.
The novel is also no more accurate on British politics. The whole point of kidnapping Katie Dartmouth is the anti-Iraq War upsurge this causes in Britain. There are supposedly huge demonstrations in Trafalgar Square in favour of withdrawal if it saves her life, and the Government is at risk of falling. However:-
(a) Iraqi groups kidnapped and/or murdered a number of British people during the Iraq War, without causing Britain to withdraw from Iraq;
(b) Whilst there was an anti-war movement throughout the War, the real peak of popular mobilisation against it was before it started, in 2003 or so. And none of it stopped Tony Blair winning a third successive election victory in 2005.
(c) With all due respect to journalists, no journalist is quite famous enough to provoke that kind of public hysteria, especially not after only a few days of captivity. The one person in recent British history whose kidnapping would have been guaranteed to provoke this level of hysteria, Princess Diana, had been dead for 10 years by 2007.
Well, all plausibility be damned, Porter goes to Lebanon, and once the negotiations fail, he rescues Katie Dartmouth (from a secret underground base, too!). Again, in fairness to Ryan, he does at least make the inevitable one man army part more or less believable. It works out so in practice he only has to kill a few enemies, unlike Rambo mowing down hundreds. And he has help – although not much from Katie, who’s pretty much a damsel in distress with minimal characterisation. You’ll find it tough to care when she gets flogged with a rubber hose. Oh, and the big twist is that the obviously evil guy on the British side is as evil as you thought right from the start, nicely absolving Porter of responsibility for the mess in Lebanon.
Honestly, though, the most interesting thing about this novel might be what it shows you about Chris Ryan. John Porter more or less is Ryan, particularly with the back story of “involvement in a huge military cock-up in relation to which his account of things has been questioned.” And the main thing John Porter seems to show is that becoming an SAS trooper is a bit like signing up to a religious cult. You will keep the faith; no matter how badly they treat you, you will continue to believe in “the Regiment” as the greatest thing since sliced bread. You will hate junior officers, just because. In spite of being involved in complicated geo-political situations and actually being fairly well-informed about them, you won’t really reflect much on why they happen, or do much abstract thinking at all. Nor is there much worth doing outside the SAS. Once you fail there, you might as well end up on the streets. “Introverted and peculiar culture” hardly begins to describe it.