A geeky hero thwarts the Chinese


A geeky hero thwarts the Chinese

LINZA DE JAGER fell in love with an elderly spy devoid of charm.


IF, like me, you feel your life is dull and boring, The Best Revenge by Gerald Seymour is the ideal tonic. It's the story of elderly spy Jonas Merrick who becomes both hunter and prey.

After a lifetime at MI5, Jonas is still low on the ladder. His successes are ignored because he has as much charm as a meat grinder. He has a soft spot only for his wife Vera and cat Olaf. Hence people's impressions of him: “The devious little man, underestimated, and playing his games." Or, “the old sod". Jonas doesn't care because all he's interested in is his job and the intelligence operation he's planning. He wants to discipline China.

Seymour's version of Britain is the most interesting I've come across. It's one in which people are nothing but pieces on a chessboard. Sometimes they fall and sometimes they get back up. Jonas is in danger of falling, because while hunting Chinese agents from behind his desk, he is being hunted by Russia. He has stepped on Moscow's toes and now he needs to buckle up. The Russian leader wants his head, or his ears, or pictures of his burned-out car. To this end, three agents are sent to Britain. However, they're not going to get their own hands dirty. They hire a local hitman named Reuven Sparks. He's not going to sparkle, though.

And this is the fun of the book. The Best Revenge is about ordinary people who mess up and stumble on; there are no plastic superheroes. Take, for example, the way Jonas gets his big intelligence breakthrough — by sheer coincidence. A security guard in Lancashire peered through the window of a car parked at a cemetery, saw a Chinese newspaper and contacted MI5 with the information.

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Honey trap

In this way, Jonas finds himself on the trail of Chinese agent Jimmy Bolton, who pretends to be a sportswear importer. Bolton controls an angel-faced prostitute, Mary Lou. She was sold as a teenager and  seduces important men. But she's tired of her life and wants out.

Seymour's realistic characters stole my heart. All are a mixture of good and evil. And the women are fascinating. There's the tough Henrietta, who only answers to the shortened version of her name, Hen, and who has to go out into the field. You could call her Jonas's hands and feet, and for a long time she's as ruthless as he is. And there's former MI6 agent Frank, who's going to betray Jonas to the Russians. She does so for the oldest reason in the book: love. The only problem is that the agent who jumped into bed with her loses all interest as soon as he gets Jonas's name.

Frank describes Jonas in detail: a short, fat male wearing a trilby hat and a tweed jacket, with a briefcase chained to his wrist. And when the sex that transported her to the height of ecstasy was over, so was what she mistook for love. She begged, “Take me, and we could begin somewhere else." The answer is practical. “Sorry, Frank. I reckoned you had more intelligence. It's what I do. And they pay quite well."

Will Jonas survive? Or will he end up minus his head and ears? Will Frank survive after her betrayal and will Hen survive after becoming disillusioned with the espionage game? Read the book and find out. It's worth it.

Seymour is an ex-journalist who covered Vietnam, the Middle East and Northern Ireland, among others. Terrorism is his intellectual passion. He spent hours with former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko before he was poisoned. He remembers him as having the hands of a pianist and appearing sophisticated. And yes, it was more than an amicable meeting because Seymour was conducting research for a book. It's the kind of background that gives him the insight into the games that organisations like MI5 play.

The following words are from the mouth of Jonas's boss but I suspect they could have come from Seymour's mouth as well. “For God's sake, none of them give a flying fuck about Chinese espionage, their hoovering of secrets, their corruption of our political system, their insinuation into the functioning of our critical infrastructure or the collapse of our democracy. Hear me, Jonas, not a flying fuck…"

So much cynicism and suspense, with characters ranging from thugs to lovers. Seymour handles love subtly, like something breakable. His main character, Jonas, is a man who feels love despite everything. It's simply deeply hidden.

Seymour packs a world into 374 pages. How he manages to do this, I don't know. The story is set in Britain, Russia and China. It's written in the kind of practical journalistic language that drives a story forward and it teems with swear words, but in the background something lyrical lurks. A photo of Seymour shows an old geezer, the kind you see parking at shopping malls in spots reserved for seniors. He looks harmless, almost invisible. He's the opposite of a hunk and I'm in love with him.

Who, what, where and how much?

The Best Revenge by Gerald Seymour was published by Hodder & Stoughton and costs R430 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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