A modern Buchan

Racing round the library late one Thursday evening just before closing time, I was rushing to pick up my full quota of volumes and grabbed Paul Torday's More than you can say. It was only a few nights ago when I picked up the book to have a read that I realised that Paul Torday was the author of Salmon fishing in the Yemen; his debut novel, which was heavily hyped and remained in the best-seller lists in the UK for some time.

I had read Salmon fishing, and to be honest wasn't that impressed. It was a fun book, pretty enjoyable, but I thought it was nowhere near up to the hype surrounding it, and found it fairly forgettable. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to read another book by the author off the back of reading Salmon fishing. So I guess it was lucky that I was in a rush and had forgotten the author's name, because More than you can say is unreservedly brilliant. One of the best thrillers I've read in a long time, and certainly the best global-terrorism thriller I've ever read.

Richard Gaunt is an ex-Captain in the British Army. After two long tours in Iraq and Afghanistan Gaunt returns home. He is suffering from undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and is haunted by what he has witnessed and done in the fight against terrorism. He's unable to cope on his return, hits the bottle, gambles heavily, and alienates his friends and family culminating in a separation from his fiancee. Obsessed by gambling, Gaunt agrees to walk to Oxford for a bet, but his plans are interrupted when he is kidnapped en route, and persuaded to marry a perfect stranger for a substantial sum of money. Gaunt's plans to forget about the marriage are thwarted when his Afghan "wife" follows him begging his help in escaping from the people who forced her into the marriage. Moved by pity, and an admiration for Adeena's gutsy behaviour Gaunt and "Mrs." Gaunt go on the run, but it soon becomes clear that there is more to this than Gaunt had originally believed, and it's not long before the British Security Services are involved.

Torday mentions in an afterword to the book that he had wanted to write a good old-fashioned adventure story in the style of John Buchan, and he has done this admirably. There are all the classic elements : a damsel in distress (who is perhaps rather more than meets the eye), nasty villains, an ordinary slightly naive man made good pulled into the heart of the adventure, a cracking pace, and a gripping climax. That it also happens to be about foreign (and what some might call Imperialist) wars also ties in nicely with the classic adventure story.

But this is more than just a Boys' Own story. Torday also manages to examine the morality of the war against terrorism looking at the actions of the West, and how that has impacted on the recruitment of new terrorists. "More than you can say" is Adeena's gentle taunt to Gaunt. She has something to believe in, which is more than he can say; and throughout the book belief systems, and the lack of belief in anything (politics, religion....) in the West are constant themes. This makes it sound as though the book is heavy going, but it's anything but, Torday looks at very serious and challenging themes but deals with them so lightly, that it's only after you've finished the novel that you start to think seriously about the points he has raised. The book is also in places very funny.

Okay it's not perfect - the politics of global terrorism is perhaps rather simplistically portrayed, but Torday manages to get you thinking about the situation, and deals with both sides of the conflict surprisingly even-handedly. I would heartily recommend this - if you're a fan of Buchan or Childers, you'll love this. For a gripping edge-of-the-seat read this takes a bit of beating.


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