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‘A Deniable Death’ confirms Gerald Seymour’s esteemed place in spy fiction

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Improvised Explosive Devices. IEDs. For almost a decade we’ve hated what these hidden bombs have done to our men and women in Iraq, but many of us know little about their origins or full military significance. Now the veteran British spy novelist Gerald Seymour has written an extraordinary work of fiction with these cruel weapons at its center.

To be precise, the novel’s focus is an Iranian, known as “the Engineer,” who has designed the makeshift bombs used in Iraq and continually updated them to make them more lethal and difficult to detect. Iranian leaders hail him as “the father of the bomb in the road.” One declares, “You are, to us, our Nobel or our Kalashnikov, even our Oppenheimer.”

To Western soldiers and strategists, of course, the Engineer is the devil incarnate. One British military leader calls these bombs “the weapon that has snatched victory from the coalition and replaced it with a very fair imitation of defeat.” He adds that the Pentagon has spent in excess of $30 billion to combat this weapon, the main components of which can be bought anywhere for $5 or $10. “A Deniable Death” is the story of a joint U.S., British and Israeli attempt to kill the Engineer.

He lives with his wife and children outside an Iranian military base near the Iraqi border. He might live in greater safety within the base, but his strong-willed wife loves their house on a large marsh that attracts rare birds. After a long search, British intelligence learns his whereabouts, even as the Engineer faces a personal crisis. His wife has a brain tumor that Iranian doctors call inoperable, but which the Engineer hopes can be treated by European doctors with more sophisticated equipment. His government grants the couple permission to go there to seek treatment.

It is then that two British surveillance experts, known by the nicknames Badger and Foxy, make their way within 200 yards of the Engineer’s home, where they hide in the marsh’s mud and reeds with powerful microphones. Their goal is to learn where the couple are going. Given that information, an Israeli assassin is poised to follow the couple to Europe.

Complications arise, of course. Foxy, 51, and Badger, 28, soon loathe each other, even as they coexist for days in a shallow hole in the ground, tormented by flies, mosquitoes, 110-degree heat, wild boars, spiders, snakes, rats, ticks and diarrhea. Waiting across the border in Iraq to extract them is a team that consists of Abigail Jones, a British intelligence officer, and four well-armed security guards. Abigail combines the determination of the heroine of “Zero Dark Thirty” with the sexiness of the heroine of “Homeland.”

The Engineer and his wife fly to Germany, where she will be examined by an Iranian-born surgeon who cannot refuse a demand by the government he both hates and fears. We come to know him and his social-climbing German wife, as well as the businesslike Israeli assassin and his wife, who was blinded while fighting for her country in Lebanon. We know, too, the once-disgraced British intelligence officer who hopes that this secret, deniable mission will redeem his career. We endure what is possibly the most agonizing torture scene ever put on paper. Seymour even conveys the heartbreak in England when young IED victims are brought home for burial.

Can Foxy and Badger, hiding within sight of the Engineer’s well-guarded home, escape detection and terrible deaths? Can Abigail and her guardians hold off the growing mob of hostile Iranians that threatens them? Can the surgeon treat the Engineer’s admirable wife — she works to clear minefields in her country — or must she die? Will the Engineer himself somehow escape the assassin’s bullets? The suspense becomes all but unbearable because of Seymour’s remarkable characterizations: We care deeply about these people and their fates.

This is Seymour’s 21st novel, and critics on both sides of the Atlantic have for years compared him to John le Carre, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler and other masters of spy fiction, but his reputation has never quite equaled theirs. No matter. Serious readers will find in “A Deniable Death” not only suspense, strong characters and a realistic look at the world of espionage, but a majesty that is rare in fiction. At a certain point, the novel rises to a mythic level, portraying courage and loyalty and sacrifice almost beyond understanding.

Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Washington Post.

A DENIABLE DEATH By Gerald Seymour Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s. 439 pp. $25.99

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