Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Review of Gerald Seymour's Harry's Game

Any book Gerald Seymour writes about the troubles in Northern Ireland is probably worth the read. He was one of ITN's top reporters covering the situation between 1969 and 1976. His novel, Harry's Game, has the copyright date of 1975, so that puts the timing of the narrative, probably after Bloody Sunday, but well before the Hunger Strikes.

It was made into a miniseries in 1982. So, ask me, why am I reviewing a book written so long ago, that's already made it as a miniseries?

Because it's still a good read, and I missed the miniseries (and it's not like I care how old a book is or how much footage it inspired; I may review Little Dorret next).

Because it's a good education for anyone wanting to know the background of the troubles.

Because I recently moved to an area right within walking distance of most of the action in the narrative.

We are a bit new to the area. When people comment on my accent, I tell them, "We're Irish. We've just been away too long" (but people outside Ireland think I sound Irish). My dad was an East Belfast man. My cousins on his side of the family still live there. My Uncle Bob (my namesake) passed away during the general period covered in the book.

We recently moved from Thailand back to NI, and found a nice house in North Belfast. Belfast isn't a major metropolis, but my East Belfast cousins hardly knew the lay of the streets before they came to look us up. Our area, and nearby West Belfast are the areas known for the Troubles (with a capital "T"), whereas East Belfast has always been relatively peaceful. Relocating from East Belfast to West is almost tantamount to emigration -- let alone moving from Thailand.

The other day, I decided to walk, rather than take the bus, from my home to the city centre. I took a short cut down the footpath behind the Ballysillan Leisure Centre, which ran into the top end of Ardoyne Road, the very neighbourhood where Billy Downs lived (the assassin in the story). A lot of development has taken place since those days, but one section of it, closer to Crumlin Road, looked like it was still run down with lots of Nationalist graffiti. However, some of the more prominent murals look like an attempt to put the Troubles behind them. One prominent sign, facing the roads leading in from Shankill says, "Please respect our community."

I walked straight from there into the Shankill area, which I probably couldn't have have done in the early days of the troubles, because Shankill is as hard core Prod as Ardoyne is Catholic.

While parts of Harry's Game may read like a tour guide to those who have spent time in the area, Gerald Seymour is equally knowledgeable about the people themselves, their culture, their fears, the hatred and whatever else makes them tic.

Harry, the leading character, was actually from Portadown (a town an hour's drive South of Belfast), who spent most of his life in the army away from Northern Ireland. When British Intelligence asks him to go under-cover to Belfast to seek out the assassin of a cabinet minister, he has to learn how to speak in a West Belfast accent. He has only two weeks to prepare. He also learns the style of the Falls Road residents, that bred by suspicion and fear of outsiders, and a fear of saying too much.

Within the two weeks he has to prepare, he cultures an accent that pleases his superiors, but we find that not everyone in West Belfast is fooled. His land lady wonders that he sounds authentically West Belfast for a few words, and then suddenly other sounds creep in. It doesn't seem natural. She mentions it to a neighbour over the back fence. Tight knit community that it is, word gets to the local IRA lookout who reports the fact to the Brigade intelligence officer. They decide to keep an eye on the stranger.

This isn't adventure hero fiction. Harry isn't James Bond -- nor even "Dirty Harry". This is true to life fiction. Things happen like they would in real life. People bungle, especially the Secret Service network giving support to Harry. First, they direct him to the wrong type of guest-house. He realises that and finds a more appropriate one himself, up Falls Road, the more likely place to find an IRA assassin. Because they don't know where he is, Harry's boss is dependent on the occasional phone call he makes from the city centre. This is highly unusual for an intelligence operation. Other parties, like the police and the army, have their opinion about this.

It would never happen to James Bond, but, as we said...

By a miracle, Harry happens to make friends with the right girl. Parental warning here: read it yourself first, before passing it on to your teenager. After an intimate scene, the girlfriend Josephine, lets out some information that might be a lead. Harry passes this on to his boss, and he, to the Army people in Belfast. They pick up a girl, Theresa, who happened to get intimate with the assassin Harry is looking for.

Theresa lets out only enough information to confirm that it was the the man they were looking for, no name, no description, then she kills herself.

While the powers-that-be agree that Harry did his job well, things are a mess. Riots ensue. The hit man, Billy Downs, is assigned a revenge attack on the RUC chief of interrogation, whom the IRA holds responsible for the death of the girl.

As for Harry, he's run out of leads. He gets a job in a scrap yard, and digs in for the long haul. Where James Bond would always have a card up his sleeve and keep the movie audience on the edge of their seats, our real-world spy has run out of tricks.

But don't worry. There's enough happening on the other fronts to keep the story moving. All the while, we see the way things are done behind closed doors; how more assassinations are being planned; how important people are known on a need-to-know basis; guns and other weapons are used and immediately removed so that no one actually has a gun when the army is doing a routine search; how doors are left open so that snipers flee the scene by entering by the front door, while the family is having their supper, and out the back. We find out what Mrs. Down's really thinks about her husband being an assassin -- once she guesses the truth.

Finally, Harry's girlfriend puts two and two together: her mentioning it to Harry was what led to the poor girl, Theresa, being rounded up and killing herself. Then, Harry makes a slip of the tongue that confirms that he isn't who he's saying he is. Josephine grills him, but because she isn't a die-hard fanatic for the Republican cause, she lets it go. In the process, she lets slip another small detail that leads to Billy Down's identification.

Then, things begin to build up to a climax. The IRA people are about to catch Harry. The tables turn, but not in a James Bond sort of way, and Harry is after his man. The ending is climactic, but it's the type of thing that could happen in real life -- a lesson to be learned.

It's not a story about heroes versus villains, only the people on both sides. In the end, you'll find you've not really identified 100% with either side. It will help you appreciate the facts on the ground.

I do have one word of advice. If you plan to read it, don't read the Wikipedia article first -- too many spoilers there.