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The Outsiders by Gerald Seymour

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Article by Sean Farrell, Crime Scene Book Reviews ©.
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Gerald Seymour has long been one of the top British thriller writers. A former ITV reporter who covered both Bloody Sunday and the Munich Olympic massacre, his first novel, published in the 70s, was a thoughtful thriller about Northern Ireland, “Harry’s Game.”

Now 71, less tortuous and dense than Le Carre, less gung ho than Andy McNab, he continues to churn out quality, highly readable novels at about one a year. His twenty-ninth novel, “The Outsiders,” maintains his high standard.

The truism he put into the mouth of one of his characters in “Harry’s Game”, a British officer, that “One man’s Terrorist is another man’s Freedom Fighter,” though hardly original, has become associated with him. In fact the statement is a very good rule of thumb for approaching Seymour’s works. His books tend to focus on a situation or trouble spot and to explore how his characters, always less than perfect, deal with the moral and ethical dilemmas facing them.

Seymour’s books have covered most of the international trouble spots of the last thirty years, Africa being perhaps underrepresented, with his fine novel about Apartheid South Africa, “A Song in the Morning”, one exception. His backgrounds are always meticulously researched, so that the reader, when finished, comes away, if not sadder but wiser, then at the very least better informed. His novels about the Middle East, Terrorism – including the mind of a home grown suicide bomber -and the depravities of the Balkans in the 90’s rate special mention here, as does his excellent “The Fighting Man”, set in Guatemala.

“The Outsiders” touches on one of the most significant developments of the last two decades – the phenomenal growth in international organised crime and the impetus it was given by the collapse of the Soviet Union, together with the resulting proliferation, throughout Europe, of East European gangsters. Misha Glenny, in his 2008 work McMafia, pointed out that if International Organised Crime were a country, its GDP would make it one of the worlds wealthiest.

The (losing) battle of the international police and law enforcement agencies against these criminal organisations is a sub theme throughout the novel. This is done through a number of vignettes dotted almost randomly, featuring a Latvian policeman working for Europol in The Hague, whose job is to brief visiting politicians, public servants ,and opinion formers . In the first of these he identifies the five hubs of the criminal dynamic in Europe, with the “South West Hub”, from Cadiz to Malaga, the most significant and representing the greatest challenge.
In the words of the policeman it is “the prime gateway into Europe for all forms of hard drugs, class A, immigrants, trafficked humans, weapons. And, because of lax banking regulations, for laundering money.” The area has seen an influx of foreign criminals, mainly from Eastern Europe, some of huge power and wealth.

The main plot in the book is one of revenge, several years after the brutal murder of one of Five’s Organised Crime Group investigators in Budapest by a Russian criminal known as “The Major”. His boss, Winnie Monks, has waited a number of years for a chance to avenge the murder and when she hears the Major is on the move she assembles a team to capture and bring him to justice. The Major is bound for Marbella, for the home of a semi-retired Russian gangster, Pavel Ivanov. Ivanov, protected by two Serbian killers on the run for war crimes, lives in a fortified villa above Marbella.

The team’s chosen point for surveillance is the house next door to Ivanov, an old bungalow, home to an ailing retired British couple. The nature of the team’s quest changes when it becomes clear that there will be little help from the Spanish authorities. The team are now unofficial – outsiders – at least according to the publisher’s blurb, though the book’s title more properly belongs to two young Britishers, house-sitting for the owners, who blunder into the operation. When a special assassin’s rifle is delivered to the bungalow, the plot takes on a different dimension.

As the story unfolds there are moral dilemmas to be faced, particularly as the bungalow’s occupants witness horrific murders carried out by the criminals next door, who are outside the remit of the team. By the time the Major finally arrives, the team is in disarray, the surveillance operation is abandoned and the project officially aborted. Evacuation is imminent. Then, in an exciting climax, fate takes a hand.

Seymour makes a number of points in the book, illustrating some of the inconsistencies and paradoxes in Western governmental efforts to combat international crime, as well as emphasizing the brutal and insidious operations of the criminals. The major focus on combating terrorism has denuded the battle against international crime of vital resources, yet the criminals harm, destroy and kill far more people annually than terrorists and are cementing their position. He points to the pre-eminence of Russians in international organised crime and to the notable lack of official cooperation from the Kremlin in attempts to counter the criminals. He points up also the ruthless violence of the criminals which underpins their operations, with a surfeit of killers available unleashed by the collapse of the USSR and the detritus from the Balkan wars. There are also unflattering references to the dubious role played by Gibraltar’s banks in laundering money.

All in all a good addition to the Seymour corpus.

Review by Sean Farrell, Writing.ie Crime Scene Blog Book Reviews