The Crocodile Hunter, by Gerald Seymour
I have capitalised the title, to give it a conventional appearance, contrary to how it is shown on the cover of the book; I know I can sometimes shun convention, but showing the title of a book in all lower case [but not the author’s name] just looks affected to me: sorry. If the author’s name looks familiar, to those of my readers ‘of a certain age’, that is because he was a reporter for the ITN [International Television News] company in Britain for fifteen years, covering America’s war in Viet Nam, and the Middle East; he has been a full-time writer since 1978, and is probably best known for Harry’s Game, which was successfully dramatised for television, based on his experience in Northern Ireland, including witnessing Bloody Sunday. This is his thirty-seventh novel. I have read the aforementioned Harry’s Game, a few years ago now, so I can’t remember if the writing style of the illustrious precursor was the same as that utilised in this narrative, where the mostly third-person description of the action is somewhat clipped, by the intermittent omission of articles, definite & indefinite [the, a, an], and personal pronouns, to indicate a thought process, often rushed: this can be effective, but I have to confess that it felt slightly overused in this narrative, which does become tiresome after a while.
This concern aside, the story and its dénouement are well played out. This book is evidently one of a series; a new story, The Foot Soldiers [again correctively capitalised] is due out next month, March 2022; but it is impossible to discern, from the publications list at the front of the book, how many previous Jonas Merrick novels there have been. That notwithstanding, the character is sightly unusual in being initially at the end of his security service career; he is a ‘Fiver’, but he does bear some characteristic similarities with an illustrious fictional colleague, albeit across the river from Thames House, George Smiley: the reasons for this similarity are impossible to know, but it is a useful similarity, and far be it from me to speculate that it is any sort of ‘crib’. Merrick’s nickname among his colleagues is The Eternal Flame, because he never goes out [i.e.: leave his office]: he revels in slow, deliberate, painstaking research, seeking out potential threats to the security of Britain and, although in the early stages of his career, field work would have been barred to him, latterly it has been a matter of choice, preferring to confer the privilege of the more prestigious, albeit secret, and for internal acknowledgment only, surveillance & capture of targets on younger & fitter operatives.
However, on the evening of his leaving party, his 60th birthday, which signifies his retirement, he does something uncharacteristic: he has no positive expectations of the event, so he exits the building to give him a breathing space, and after a short walk along the river, completely by chance [and fortuitously for the story] he encounters a potential suicide bomber, whom he recognises from his research; but a very nervous, young, white radicalised British lad by the name of Winston Gunn, the product of a Caucasian, lorry-driver father and a Quetta, Pakistan-born mother. Exercising icy calm, he talks to the lad and, when he has gained Gunn’s trust, he defuses the explosive device. This act of conspicuous bravery, for which he is subsequently [but discreetly] awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal, which his wife Vera keeps at the bottom of her knicker drawer, earns him a reprieve from retirement, towards which he seemed to have no strong feelings either way: he & Vera enjoy their touring caravan holidays [and Jonas is blithely unconcerned about the traffic tailbacks this activity inevitably generates], but he also enjoys his work, which he considers to be ever more necessary, regrettably. His continuation of employment brings with it a new respect & concomitant status: the AssDepDG [Assistant Deputy Director General of the Service] now reads every memo from Jonas, instead of routinely giving them barely more than a cursory glance; and he has acquired a new sobriquet, ‘Wobby’, meaning the AssDepDG’s ‘Wise Old Bird’.
The eponymous crocodile is a new target: a potentially very dangerous individual; a returning jihadi, but a white British one, who could very easily go to ground on his return, and metaphorically lurk below the surface while preparing to strike at a significant target. Jonas reduces the candidate list of known possibilities to the one who seems most likely, in very short order, and begins his methodical research, whilst at the same time being painfully aware that rumours of a lethally destructive weapon being brought over land to Britain could signify an imminent & devastating revenge attack by this individual. Unfortunately, resources are stretched, because of a multiplicity of domestic operations, so Jonas is assigned two new and rather raw recruits for his field work. Jonas realises that his dispassionate expertise is needed out in the field, so he travels to Canterbury, just outside which the target originates from, and meets the two local tactical weapons officers who have been somewhat grudgingly told to assist him on the ground, but who initially regard him from appearances & personality as ineffectual. Interspersed within this narrative is an exposition of the back story of the target; his family background, his disenchantment with conventional British society, and his enjoyment of military action with trusted ‘brothers’ in Syria, fighting under the black flag.
The dénouement is satisfying, which is a great relief to Jonas, because his reputation, and that of ‘Five’, are very much on the line here; as the IRA famously said: “We only need to be lucky once.” Given the protagonist’s age, his future career must be somewhat limited, but nevertheless, it should be possible to conceive of a few new stories on this canon, so I will keep my eyes open for them; or any previous ones, come to that. The paperback I read was published in 2021 by Hodder & Stoughton, ISBN 978-1-529-38604-2.