The Last Testament

When I opened the front cover of this charity shop buy I found a photograph of Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland inside, and I don’t mean bizarrely inserted. I suspected Sam Bourne might be a pseudonym cynically designed to both bring to mind Robert Ludlum and cash in on the recent movie adaptations of his thrillers, but I was surprised to find out whose. Seeing as it’s announced so brazenly before you reach the first word, I didn’t really buy the claim he uses a pen name to distinguish his fiction from his journalism, especially when the author biography describes his writing on Middle Eastern politics (important to the plot here). Perhaps it’s the old highbrow disdain (is it unPC to call it snobbery?) for popular fiction.

But he needn’t have worried. Yes, the prose is as colourless as Dan Brown, but his dialogue’s a lot less pulpish (no villains snarling “How they mock us, in the house of the Lord!” here). And politically, as thrillers set in the Middle East go, it’s hardly the simplistic blood-letting of Tom Clancy. Both the goodies and the baddies exist in a grey world, and Freedland leaves it intentionally muddied as to which is which, and not just to milk for thrillerdom’s par for the course cliffhangers. Consequently it’s an intelligent, thought provoking yarn that taught me a thing or two about Israel and the Palestinians. Freedland’s 20 year career reporting on the region lends it a sense of realism (in all its complexities). Some descriptions are clearly from life.

Anyway, The Last Testament (as in ‘will and’, but I won’t spoil whose) starts with a well known Zionist archaeologist trying to rush the Israeli PM just before the start of earnest peace talks. He’s shot and killed, and shortly thereafter a Palestinian archaeologist is also murdered. With the talks in jeopardy, the US sends in mediator Maggie Costello to stop things boiling over and get the discussion moving forward again. But with the two sides at entrenched stalemate, she realises what links the two archaeologists is the solution. Of course, what links the two archaeologists is almost five thousand years old, and there are plenty of people who would much rather those age-old secrets die with the two old men.

Literature it ain’t, but the pages just flew by, and I kept turning corners to read up on some of the facts later. Meanwhile I could have kept a ticklist of all the usual thriller tropes thrown in, from the heroine seeking redemption for past mistakes to the baddie who turns out to be a goodie and the goodie who turns out to be a baddie (Dan Brown’s favourite). Freedland somewhat overuses the unexpected-death-that-you-know-the-character-actually-survived twist, and there are some very silly developments involving Second Life, but all forgiveable.

The Sam Bourne novels are a charity shop perennial, but when I finished this one and went hunting for one of his others, would you believe it, there was not one to be found. So instead I’m reading The Short Reign of Pippin IV by John Steinbeck, which might be even sillier than The Last Testament.