The town of Ahmadi in Kuwait was only established in 1946 after the discovery of oil there, and the town built up around the operations of the Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) – it remains the KOC’s headquarters today. Many British and American ex-pats settled there and worked for the oil company, and entertainment centred around the Hubara Club, also still extant.
Author Louise Burfitt-Dons grew up there, her father worked for the KOC in the 1950s into the 1960s. It was a politically unstable time in the region, as invasion by Iraq supported by the Soviets was a constant threat – leading up to Operation Vantage in 1961 where British forces protected Kuwait leading to recognition of the country as an independent state in 1963. So you could say that she is uniquely well placed to set her spy thriller there in the febrile atmosphere that existed in 1960.
After a short prologue in which we are introduced to the fact that there is a Soviet spy known as ‘Alex’ in place locally whose job is stir those opposed to Kuwait’s independence, we meet the main protagonist of the novel, Gordon Carlisle….
In the twelve years he’d been in Kuwait, it had been Gordon’s little adventures that had kept him sane. The routine desk job had forced him to find distractions from the tedium of memoranda and long hand-wirtten reports. Minor diversions which got him out of the office helped enormously and the range of interests soothed his restless soul.
But if he’d earned his reputation as James Bond of the Desert, it was because of the camping excursions. He didn’t see it himself and certainly didn’t want the ridiculous image aired around. Particularly since the news that Ian Fleming himself, creator of the fictional secret agent, was on his way out to Kuwait.
Yes, Bond’s creator really did go to Kuwait in 1960. Fleming may have worked for Naval Intelligence on the side, but he was commissioned by the KOC to write about the company, oil production and the country. (But the Kuwaiti government didn’t allow it to be published – his only unpublished work! Apparently his one personal bound copy exists in a US university archive). Burfitt-Dons’ father, who has clearly influenced the character of Gordon in some aspects, became a friend of Fleming’s and the two went on hawking expeditions into the desert – as Gordon does for Fleming in the novel – but with potentially more dramatic consquences.
So we have all the ingredients for a good thriller – knowledge of the existence of a Russian spy, the arrival of the famous author, an adventurous scientist, the threat of terrorism to the oil company’s installations, and the looming presence of the Iraqis. All these elements are pulled together to create a suitably complex plot when murders start to happen – and Gordon finds himself as a suspect.
But there is another side to this novel, and that is the ex-pat life, centering around the Hubara Club and gallons and gallons of gin. Many of the wives spend a lot of time there, the school-gate moms will take the kids to the Club’s pool, and wait lounging, gossiping and drinking for their husbands to come and join them after work. Gordon is newly married to the beautiful Anita, who turns all the other chaps’ heads, he can’t believe his luck that she picked him when they met on a trip home. Meanwhile his longterm friend and colleague Carl has sent his wife and kids back to the UK due to the instability in Kuwait. Things begin to hot up a bit at the Golf Club dance, where Anita is whisked away to dance by Pip Foster, a journalist on assignment there whom Gordon had been lumbered with at the KOC (he turns out to be an MI6 agent). A drunken Ophelia Dickson takes the opportunity to launch herself at Gordon, the object of her desires; her husband John isn’t bothered, being a philanderer himself. Gordon just wishes she’d leave him alone, he’d hoped that Anita wouldn’t invite the Dicksons to the dinner party they’re planning, but no joy there as Anita had already asked them.
All the ‘fun’ of the ex-pats getting drunk, having affairs and dinner party oneupmanship comes over strongly, as do all the scenes involving Fleming. Indeed, they do tend to overtake the real business of finding out who agent Alex is – which was, and wasn’t, a surprise in the end. I can’t really say more on that front.
Having recently watched the new ITVX series A Friend Among Spies which starred Guy Pearce as Kim Philby, I’m now more aware he was lurking in the Middle East as a journalist at that time too, informing the character of Pip Foster.
Overall this was an enjoyable look into a country and period which I know little about, and I’m always up for anything with spies!
Source: Review copy. New Century hardback/paperback 329 pages.
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