The Running Target, by Gerald Seymour

This is a superb novel from 1989, as well as an excellent thriller. It marries the literary and espionage worlds, as it creates a political and social environment, peoples it with complicated characters who have differences of opinion, and raises issues of morality and justice.

This is a story of competition between the British police and British intelligence, and of leaders who belong to the old school and the foot soldiers who see today’s reality differently. It also covers the struggle between Iranian dissidents and Iranian authorities under the ayatollah, and about whether the ends of justice justify the violent means. And, finally, it tackles personal pride vs. personal disgrace, personal decision-making vs. professional discipline, and one’s personal duty vs. professional judgment.

The novel begins with three stories, each one interesting but each in conflict with the other, with the novel’s richness arising from this complexity. The reader’s involvement increases, moreover, as the author jumps back and forth from one story to another, obliging the reader to orient himself to each one and to anticipate how these three stories will link together.

The first story is one of revenge. Charlie Eshraq is a young Iranian exile whose father and sister have been killed by the Iranian revolutionaries, and so he vows revenge on the men who carried out those deaths. To do so, he carries Iranian heroin illegally into England and sells it to raise money to buy the arms he needs to carry out his private executions back home.

The second story revolves around David Park, a young strait-laced leader of a British Customs team assigned to stop all heroin trade. His job in the novel is to find the supplier of heroin which killed the daughter of an important politician. The one lead he is given will lead him to Charlie Eshraq.

The third story concerns Mattie Furniss, who runs British agents in Iran, and who is sent, against all rules, into Iran by an aggressive boss to beef up the information their Iranian agents are providing. And, since coincidence can drive such novels as this, it so happens that Mattie knew Charlie’s dead father and regards Charlie as a virtual son, and so willingly helps him obtain the arms he needs to carry out his avenging murders.

The three stories kick into high gear, when Mattie’s presence in Iran is detected. He is kidnapped and cruelly tortured in gruesome scenes, after which he reveals both the names of his agents and, in a moment of weakness, that of his revenge-minded friend Charlie.

All this is accompanied back home by the story of incompetence combined with the story of justice. The incompetence occurs in a London familiar from many a LeCarre novel, when Furniss’ Intelligence bosses casually delay warning their Iranian agents that they have been exposed. Moreover, the Customs team, led by David Park, is ordered by these same bosses, who are using Charlie for their own purposes, not to break up Charlie’s efforts to fund his revenge by distributing heroin.

Further complications arise when, ridden by guilt for breaking down under the harrowing torture and betraying his Iranian agents, Mattie surprises his guards, kills them, and flees across Iran toward Turkey. He becomes the running target of the title. Now, to the growing suspense, the novel adds an element of morality and justice. For, once back in London, Mattie is lionized by some as a hero, while others debate that he broke down and betrayed his agents. And this conflict strains his conscience, as he resists confessing the truth to a close friend who is debriefing him.

Whereupon, the novel returns to David Park, who is assigned to accompany Charlie Eshraq back into Iran with his weapons. And so he is also conflicted. Should he help this Eshraq who has brought the ravages of heroin into England, and so betray his, Park’s, own personal sense of justice?

Such richness and suspense are enhanced by the novel’s multiple viewpoints, which range beyond the main characters to their colleagues, bosses, and spouses, and even to their enemies. And a new viewpoint may not be identified at the start of a scene, with the reader being forced to wait for the proper identification, and even at times bring forced to figure it out. Which draws the reader more deeply into the action.

This novel is also enhanced by the convincing presentation of the Iranian intelligence service. Both the investigator and his team in pursuit of Mattie and then holding and torturing Mattie are intelligent and consistent professionals. They are dedicated to their mission; they are not stock villains, but worthy adversaries who make the risks Mattie and his agents face all the more convincing.

But what truly makes this novel stand out from other works of this type are the complexities of all the main characters, particularly the moral complexities. First comes the dense British Intelligence director who orders Mattie to go to Iran and demand that his agents provide more information, his prime motive being to build his own reputation. But his orders break all agency rules, for it risks the safety of both Mattie and his agents in Iran.

Then, there is Mattie himself, and how much he should hold out against torture when he is captured, and the guilt he feels about whether he deserves praise or condemnation for that struggle. Plus, there is Charlie Eshraq, who breaks British law by selling heroin, but who is allowed to do so in order to the buy the arms he needs to execute his justice back to Iran. And finally there is David Park, the policeman who has a one-track mind, intent on stopping all drug trade that harms British society, even as his own government helps one of his targets in the interest of British foreign policy.

I have always been impressed by Seymour’s thrillers, the last being Field of Blood, which also concerned political violence, in that case during the recent conflict in Northern Ireland. And where Seymour again focused on the moral issues involved. For when his hero is imprisoned by the British, he shows both the Irish and the British being honestly dedicated to their cause. So, I will be alert to other Seymour thrillers on sale. For his works are literary thrillers, merging suspense with the richness of politics and with moral and emotional complexity. (December, 2017)