Book Review – Operation Saladin by Roger Croft

Title: Operation Saladin
Author: Roger Croft
Format: Paperback
Published: May 2, 2013

In Operation Saladin Michael Vaux is a British expat journalist working in Cairo for a Damascus newspaper.  His lies from the previous novel The Wayward Spy catch up to him after eight years, and he’s warned to flee the country.  A section of MI6 called B3 which Vaux had worked for and abandoned eight years earlier decides to take advantage of his situation and recruit him for a new mission.

If you loved how The Wayward Spy ended, you probably shouldn’t read this book, and if you haven’t read The Wayward Spy, then I can’t image why you would want to read this book.  If you love to read about divorced, alcoholic, middle-aged men living out spy fantasies with (a) significantly younger mistress(es) and aren’t a fan of all that silly action and characterization stuff, then you might like this.

I must admit my knowledge of the Middle East is sketchy, and there’s quite possibly a lot of good research and British spy novel in-jokes that I’m failing to appreciate.  If so, I apologize; I must stick to reviewing things I am familiar with like plot, pacing, and characterization.  To my knowledge, there was nothing wrong with the research other than my deepest hope that the professionals in British intelligence organizations are not actually this stupid.

First the plusses, most of the sentences are coherent, and the formatting is well done.  The profanity is moderate, and the sex is not explicit.  (Personal preferences, but I appreciate the light touch.) There was the occasional droll chuckle, and some characters who might have been interesting if they had been better written.

But frankly this was the most boring novel I’ve ever read.  (The Old Man and the Sea is a novella.)  There are other novels I abandoned that may be worse, but I kept hoping this one would pick up the pace.  Argh, the pace!  To give you an idea, a man is murdered, and then a week later B3 has an emergency meeting about it.  Two weeks later, Vaux starts to think about something doing something he should have done about a minute after the murder occurs…and then he puts off actually doing it for another week or two.

Eighty percent of this book was either meetings or Vaux going from safe house to safe house or meetings about Vaux going to a safe house.  Chapter two seems to mainly be a recap of The Wayward Spy with notes that probably would have been less confusing if I had read The Wayward Spy first, but I suspect chapter two covers most of the plot.  However I doubt it would have seemed less artificial.  The characters kept kicking off paragraphs with phrases like “Do you remember?” for things that obviously they do and should remember and are just saying for the readers’ benefit.  While chapter two is the worst offender, this continues at odd points for much of the novel, and even plot points that are covered in this book and not from the last get restated half-a-dozen times as though the author does not trust the reader’s memory to reach beyond a couple of chapters.

The author is also a former journalist, and I expect the repetition is one of those things that works well in journalism but not so well in a novel.  Most of the action is very short and/or summarized and in only one scene does our protagonist sort of take part…though without really affecting anything.  The little bit of actual espionage work he does is also summarized and rushed, and he has a handler to lead him through every step.

Supposedly there’s an eight year gap between the two books, but it doesn’t feel like anyone’s been doing eight year’s worth of stuff in that time.  Alena and Vaux don’t act like two people who’ve known each other for eight years, B3 seems to have worked no cases in that eight year gap, and everyone in England acts like Vaux has only been away for a few months.

There’s a lot of alcohol consumption.  Nearly every page someone is having a drink or thinking about having a drink.  Most of the time it’s Vaux drinking (but never showing any signs of drunkenness other than a generally dull mind), but it’s also a lot of official folk drinking on the job.  Maybe this was normal in Britain in the year 2000, but personally I hope the Special Forces soldier guarding my safe house isn’t drinking vodka while on duty.

A generous 2/5.

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