Cobra Gold

December 19, 2007

My heart sank when confronted with this book. Ever since Andy McNab (not his real name) made it big with his SAS tales, a plethora of former SAS veterans has published fictional accounts of their lives and times in Afghanistan/Iraq/Oman/you-name-it. Like celebrity biographies, their tomes dominate shelf space in the lower-end bookshops. I have nothing against SAS veterans, but the ones I know never struck me as particularly good story-tellers.

Well, his plot concerns a heist, actually a double heist, of gold in Lebanon in 1979 by a bunch of SAS men. They make their first appearance in Chapter One with an overly technical account of the weaponry used to “take out” a former comrade who has embraced the cause of Allah and is training terrorists, called “Black Assassins,” in the mountains of Syria. The tale fast-forwards to the present, when the now-old commandos try to go back and redeem the gold. Then their problems start. By Chapter Three, a hackneyed run-through of the cast failed to grip me. The hero, scion of a posh family, is the tall, handsome, lithe and taciturn Lieutenant Kilbride. He is supported by: a tough, barrel-chested, crew-cut sergeant major; a dour Scotsman; an Irishman who knows about explosives; an ex-Delta Force American; and a big Afrikaner who did time with the mercenaries in Black Africa. No Italian from Brooklyn?

Kilbride is at odds with Major Thistlethwaite, who is thrust into The Regiment over his head.  However de rigueur it may be for the Inspector Frosts of contemporary detective fiction to fall out with their superiors, Damien Lewis’s thriller reads like “The Dirty Dozen Meet Inspector Morse.” Still, the book improves. Lewis does action without too much extraneous detail and describes the fanaticism of the Assassins adequately. You might find yourself swept along by unexpected turns in the layers of plot without getting confused. It is a decent enough Boys’ Own narrative without being exceptional. If this volume is anything to go by, the hype on the cover about the author’s previous work is overdone.

Reviewer: Stewart Dalby is a former war correspondent for the Financial Times, now a travel writer, novelist and internet publisher.