Chris Morgan Jones' latest espionage novel, The Jackal's Share, makes a reader appreciate the attractions of simplicity. There aren't any glitzy tricks here: no over-the-top villains or weapons arsenals; no le Carre-like meditations on the existential identity of the spy.
Instead, with a British appreciation for understatement, Jones elegantly executes the basic elements of the conventional thriller. Take one lone-wolf agent and set him on the trail of an enigmatic big shot with sketchy business associates. Throw in some swanky locales, a few well-placed corpses and brewing trouble in our hero's marriage. Wrap it all up with a couple of truly tense cliffhangers, and the result is what the great but apologetic thriller writer Graham Greene famously downplayed as "an entertainment." Would that all thrillers could pull of this seemingly modest goal.
The jittery fun begins when Ben Webster, an operative for a corporate intelligence firm called Ikertu, is summoned by his boss to meet with an Iranian gazillionaire named Darius Qazai. Ever since the overthrow of the Shah, Qazai and his family have lived in exile, in London, where he has built a reputation as a philanthropist and patron of the arts. But when someone begins leaking damaging information about Qazai on the Internet, it starts disrupting his business deals. It's Webster's odd mission to thoroughly investigate his own client, Qazai, in order to issue a document from Ikertu attesting to the mogul's pristine character. Since Qazai and his family will be the primary sources for Webster's research, he's hamstrung from the outset of the case.
Complications arise and multiply like hives on allergy-prone skin. An art-world colleague of Qazai's is found murdered in a Tehran hotel. Rumors about smuggling and arms deals slither into the conversations Webster has with those who've dealt with Qazai. A deathly pale French lawyer named Yves Senechel, who serves as Qazai's chief flunky, sets off more alarm bells. As the deadline for the report looms, however, Webster still can't pin down why he so distrusts his own client. Here's a dinner conversation about Qazai that Webster has with a cynical colleague, a boozy old Middle East hand named Fletcher Constance:
Constance frowned, grunted and looked up from his food. "You think he's clean?"
Webster thought for a moment. "No. But I don't know why." He bit into a pepper and savored its heat. "I've checked out hundreds of people. ... You get little sniffs, bits and pieces, then you run out of money. ... [T]his [case] is different. I can speak to the man. I get to ask him questions. I get to look him in the eye."
He paused and Constance smiled. "He lets you look him in the eye?"
Webster gave a knowing laugh. "For now."
"Do you like what you see?"
Webster considered the question. "Anyone that polished has to be hiding something."
Of course he is! We readers don't think for one moment that Qazai is clean; it's the slowly unfurling tentacles of his various nefarious entanglements that claim our attention.
Another pleasure of The Jackal's Share derives from the whirlwind travel that Webster's investigations demand. That aforementioned dinner conversation takes place in Dubai, where Webster has flown for a meeting with Qazai's son. The descriptions of Webster's hotel — the soaring and surrealistic Burj Al Arab, with its opulent restaurants and lowly Indian and Thai service workers — lend a touch of decadence to this tale, as do the images of Qazai's tasteful townhouse in London and his golden villa on Lake Como. Webster's surroundings, though, aren't always so lavish: In particular, his unplanned stay in a Moroccan jail is redolent of what Raymond Chandler dubbed "the smell of fear." That smell becomes overpowering when Webster's own family falls in danger of being sacrificed to his obsessions.
Webster is yet another incarnation of that familiar figure in suspense fiction: the guy who just can't leave well enough alone. While his boss at Ikertu seems content to take Qazai's money and write up an agreeable character testimonial, Webster can't restrain his hotshot tendencies.
In Jones' much-acclaimed debut novel, The Silent Oligarch, published in this country last year, Webster chased down gangsters and crooked bureaucrats in the crumbling former Soviet Union; here, he's running himself ragged in the Middle East and North Africa, among other environs. The fact that there's corruption aplenty around the globe and that Webster seems to have stamina in reserve is terrific news for fans of first-class thrillers.