The Siege by Stephen White

Signet, 2010 (first published 2009).

 How does one write an original thriller in the crowded niche of books about terrorists/hostages? If the author had not been Stephen White, I would not have picked up this book on the grounds that such plots are usually 100 per cent predictable, with the only variations being location, cause of terrorism, etc.  Nevertheless, Stephen White is a reliable author, and after completing The Siege I think it fair to say that if you like his Alan Gregory novels, you’ll probably like this one, which although it features series regular Sam Purdy, a Boulder cop currently under suspension, can be read without any reference to the rest of the author’s output.

The Siege does not start promisingly, with a confusing opening chapter that plunges us into the main action,  told from the point of view of New Haven cop Sergeant Christine Carmody as she is dealing with an act of violence against a hostage being held in a ‘tomb’ at Yale University.  After this horrible yet confusingly described event, the author steps back to relate the story of the previous few days that led up to the crisis. Some of this build-up concerns the aforementioned Sam, who is attending an upmarket engagement party in Florida. He has been invited because his soon-to-be stepdaughter is marrying the son of the squillionaire Ronaldo Calderon and his geophysicist wife Ann. Knowing Sam is in law enforcement, Ann reveals to him that her daughter Jane, a student at Yale, has suddenly stopped communicating with her, and that she’s very worried as the two are usually in constant contact. She asks him for discreet help. Rapidly, Sam surmises that the reason for Jane’s silence is a dreadful one.

Chapters switch between Sam’s quest to find out more about what has happened to Jane, and Christine’s cop duties in New Haven. Luckily, Christine has a boss who is not very bright, so between explanations to him and Sam (who soon arrives at the location) scouting around, the reader is given a quick tutorial on Yale tombs (actually large, stone buildings), secret student societies (reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s novel A Secret History), “tapping” and so on, as well as a useful street map, so one can become geographically orientated about the act(s) of terrorism and other dramatic events in the immediate area.

A third story is being told in parallel – that of an odd couple of investigators, a female CIA agent called Dee, and her occasional male lover, FBI counter-intelligence specialist Poe. Poe is a victim of the Oklahoma bomb atrocity and has never really recovered. He and Dee between them are interested in “evolved terrorism” – where terrorism might go if it stopped being the provenance of fanatics and began to be financed by high-tech big business. They, too, home in on New Haven as soon as they hear news of the hostage crisis.

The Siege is very involving and exciting during the chapters about Sam, Christine, Dee and Poe, as they try to fulfil their various missions with honour and courage, as well as racing against time to second-guess (and hence try to foil) the terrorists. Where the novel falls down is in exactly in the usual failing of  “terrorist-hostage” novels:  that is, the terrorists are far too all-seeing, all-powerful, able to anticipate any move by the authorities and technologically beyond mere sophistication. Their motivation, when finally revealed, is logical but not that credible, and for me does not fully hang together with their actions towards their student hostages. So, I score the novel 10 out of 10 for the "good guy" characters and the exciting, tense events as told from their perspectives as they converge on New Haven– I particularly liked the geophysical subplot – but far less than that for the routine terrorists and the action-packed (equally routine) outcome and aftermath.

I purchased my copy of this novel. Thanks to Kathy for reminding me the other day in a comment that this book was on my "to be purchased" list.

The Siege at the author's website.

Read other, very positive, reviews of The Siege at: Mysterious Reviews;  The Novel Bookworm; and Seeing the World Through Books. (This last review, by Mary Whipple, is excellent both as a review and as a very informative piece about the setting of the novel.)

Review first posted at Petrona, November 2010.

This entry was posted in Books, Crime fiction, North America, Political, Tech/Internet, Thriller, USA. Bookmark the permalink.

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