A novel of ‘The Troubles’

Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour

I was amazed to find that this thriller from 1975 was Gerald Seymour’s début novel. Because of its setting, it is the kind of book that my late mother would never have read, and we read a lot of thrillers betweeen us in our household back then. She was born and bred in Protestant Belfast, and left to work and live in England in the early 1950s before ‘The Troubles’ really flared up. She always distanced herself from it while I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. She was also estranged from her father, we only ever went to visit once when I was little – they argued on the doorstep and that was that.

She would never talk about any of this then, and as a consequence I’ve ended up confused about Belfast and rather ignorant about this whole era of Irish history. Remembering very vaguely the TV serialisation from the 1980s when I picked a copy of this novel up at a book sale, I read it initially as a high-class thriller with two sides – Them and Us.

The novel starts with a murder. A British Cabinet Minister, a former Minister for Northern Ireland, is shot in broad daylight outside his home in an affluent part of London, by an IRA killer. (In the TV series, the murderer Billy Downs was played by none other than Casualty stalwart Derek Thompson, right.)

The Prime Minister personally orders the secret services to send in an undercover agent to infiltrate the IRA and take out the Minister’s killer. They choose Captain Harry Brown, a lapsed Catholic from Portadown and family man, but who had acquitted himself well undercover in Aden.  Brown knows what may happen if his cover is blown, but still accepts the job. He’s given three weeks intensive submersion training, a new surname McEvoy, and heads off to Belfast posing as a merchant-seaman returning home. He finds a room in a guest house run by Mrs Duncan…

Mrs Duncan had noticed he’d been away. And a long time at that, she was certain. Something grated on her ear, tuned to three decades of welcoming visitors and apportioning to them their birthplace to within a few miles. She was curious, now, because she couldn’t place what had happened to his accent. Like the sea he talked of, she was aware it came in waves – ebbed in its pitch. Pure Belfast for a few words, or a phrase, then falling off into something that was close to Ulster but softer, without the harshness. It was this that nagged as she dusted round the house and cleaned the downstairs hall, while above her Harry moved about in his own room. She thought about it a lot during the morning, and decided that what she couldn’t quite understand was the way he seemed to change his accent so slightly mid-sentence. If he was away on a boat so long then of course we would have lost the Belfast in his voice – that must have happened. But then in contradiction there were the times when he was pure Belfast. She soundlessly uttered the different words that emphasized her puzzlement to herself, uncomprehending.

Harry’s card is marked in one way or another right from the start. Later as the pressure mounts to find Billy Downs (whose name is unknown to the British), he finally gets a job; there’s also a girl, a dance and a gun. But I won’t spoil what happens.

What Seymour does is bring the Belfast back-streets to life, but more than that he shows the intelligence systems that both sides have for collating information on everyone. No-one enters this area without being noted and their movements logged by IRA spotters, and the Army alike. It all seemed completely real.

Seymour studied Modern History at university, becoming a journalist and then working for ITN where he covered many major politcal and military events, and I must assume, as I’ve been unable to confirm, that his experience reporting on The Troubles formed the basis of his research for this novel.

The success of this novel though is driven by the characterisation of Harry. Already a hero, he is put into a near impossible situation, and Seymour makes you like him from the start. Added to that, my only clear memory of the TV series was the lovely Ray Lonnen (left) who played Harry, and he was Harry for me too whilst I read the book. Although he seemed perfect casting at the time, I note that Lonnen comes from Eastbourne, and I hope Mrs Duncan didn’t pick that up in his accent!

As Robert Harris acknowledges in his introduction to the latest edition of this novel, “… every so often the genre {thriller} throws up a novel of such remarkable quality, that the cycle is broken. Having finished it you don’t want to throw it out …”  I agree wholeheartedly with him, and the enduring popularity of this book has ensured that it has remained in print ever since.

Given its subject, this wasn’t an easy thriller to read, but it was a really great one. (9/10)

Source: Own copy. Hodder paperback, BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

I shall leave you with Clannad singing The Theme from Harry’s Game on Top of the Pops back in the mid 1980s – this was their breakthrough into the international mainstream.

10 thoughts on “A novel of ‘The Troubles’

  1. LizF says:

    Not a book I have ever read and for very similar reasons to your own.
    Although my father’s family were from the south of Ireland (he was a Clare man and my grandad was from Kerry) he grew up largely in Portadown due to my policeman grandad having been forced out by the IRA in 1922. Despite being Protestant, their Church of Ireland beliefs meant they didn’t fit in all that well in what was then a town dominated by the Orange Order and although I went to visit my grandad and aunt there a lot in the 60’s, there was always the sense that they were a bit in no-man’s land as the divide between the Catholic and Protestant communities widened.

    When the Troubles really got started, grandad decided that he
    didn’t want my dad to take me there anymore so my connection ended but I grew up knowing that the situation wasn’t black and white and tended to avoid books and TV programmes about it because they all seemed to come out on one side or the other.

    All I remember about the series is the theme which is still one of my favourite pieces of Clannad’s music so thanks for the link. I didn’t watch it then despite Ray Lonnen and Derek Thompson (who was a pretty good actor in those days) but
    maybe enough water has gone under the bridge for me to risk reading the book now!

    • gaskella says:

      You and me both Liz – how about that!
      With my mum gone, and not being in touch with any surviving relatives in N.I. it was definitely time to read this thriller – I thought Seymour pitched it just right, it was terrific.

  2. LizF says:

    Just watched the TOTP performance! The fact that Clannad weren’t used to miming is horribly apparent!

  3. Alex says:

    I could listen to that music all day! I hadn’t realised that that was the source. Although I have no Irish links myself the troubles were ever present in my teaching life as I worked with the children of many first generation Irish immigrants and then with Irish students who came over to the Catholic college where I taught. For those reasons, plus the fact that I was yards away from the Birmingham pub bombings, I haven’t read this book, but perhaps Liz F is right and there is now enough distance.

  4. Falaise says:

    I’ve read quite a few of Gerald Seymour’s novels and find them a cut above most thrillers. Harry’s Game is a real classic of the genre. Other than being in the vicinity of a couple of bombs in London and having lived through them from the ’70s onwards, I don’t have any Irish connections so the Troubles don’t have the same emotional resonance for me but, hopefully, we can start to look at them as a dark period in history rather than as a current state.

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