BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
A tale of espionage with a hidden sting
, June 7, 2014
by Warren Reed
Paperback: 270 pages
Reviewed by John Ballantyne
Former Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) officer Warren Reed’s latest book, Hidden Scorpion, is a rare work of spy fiction. For the imaginative reader it is close to being a total-immersion experience of the perilous profession of espionage.
Here is laid bare the authentic life of an intelligence officer contending against deadly adversaries. His life depends on his being able to bring into play many skills and being a shrewd judge of character.
All the ingredients are here to satisfy the connoisseur of clandestinity — the descriptions of tradecraft, the methods of counter-surveillance and the handling of weapons.
Warren Reed, like his novel’s protagonist Ben Johnson, was an ASIS officer, serving for 10 years in the Asian region, and eventually being posted in the mid-1980s to Cairo. There Reed’s promising career was abruptly ended after his cover was blown. He was lucky to escape with his life. In many ways, his exposure was very like the Obama White House’s recent blunder in revealing the identity of the top CIA agent in Afghanistan to 6,000 reporters.
The story Reed tells in Hidden Scorpion is set a few years after the author’s own time in Cairo. It opens dramatically in Kuwait City in August 1990, just as Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s forces are seizing control of oil-rich Kuwait, giving Saddam control of much of the world’s oil wealth. The first Gulf War has begun.
Johnson is personally responsible for the safety of a scientist who has been smuggled out of Baghdad and who possesses valuable intelligence about Saddam’s dangerous ambitions.
This story is both extraordinary and utterly authentic and absorbing. Reading it, I was so drawn into the narrative that I hauled out my atlas to trace the movements of the characters as they travelled across the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
Warren Reed is an accomplished artist as well as writer, and in this book he evokes the atmosphere of exotic lands with the skill of a painter mixing the colours on his palette to convey different shades and hues.
Here is an account of ASIS officer Johnson venturing into Old Cairo: “To Johnson, who was better acquainted with the clamour of Asia, there was a similarity in the sense of community that pervaded the place. It was something he found both comforting and simulating and which he missed whenever back in his home country.
“Indeed, he had never experienced culture shock going out into new worlds, as most people did. Rather, it struck him when he returned.”
Much of Hidden Scorpion is set in Egypt, where the ruins of its ancient civilisation provide a majestic backdrop to Johnson’s adventures. Ibrahim, a digs supervisor at an archaeological site, tells Johnson and his younger operational assistant Meg Heyward: “Here, you see history sliced open in front of your face.”
The most appealing quality of this book, and the sort of ingredient that makes a thriller that much more satisfying, is the powerful camaraderie and bond of trust among Johnson’s circle. His friends include not only Meg Heyward and a couple of Cairo-based officers of allied intelligence agencies, such as the CIA and Britain’s MI6, but also other valued contacts Johnson has acquired over the years from further afield, such as an Iraqi family and a Thai.
In one chapter, five Bedouin tribesmen help Johnson and his friends to escape from their pursuers by disguising them in traditional Bedouin dress and escorting them on a long and event-filled camel trek across the desert to the Mediterranean coast.
But, even when clad as desert tribesmen, Johnson and company are still in great danger of being discovered, because other desert people in the vicinity are skilled in detecting the presence of intruders: “They could read this simply from the way someone sat in the saddle. From kilometres away they could often name the tribe to which others belonged.”
Hidden Scorpion provides some perceptive commentary on America’s mixture of idealism and naïveté as it tries time and again to set the Middle East to rights. In doing so, America sometimes unwittingly unleashes terrible forces it cannot master.
One of Johnson’s trusted friends is an Iraqi, Dr Sidqi Halil, who works for the Egyptian Ministry of Industry. Sidqi describes how the Americans “had dragged Iran away from a heavily traditional past and into a world defined by foreigners with no understanding of the impact of the changes they were wreaking”.
He says that, in 1979, “when this experiment went disastrously wrong”, the Americans “ended up with a revolution on their hands and the Ayatollah Khomeini and his militant clerics in charge. Then they goaded Baghdad into slaying the beast, but that went wrong too, producing an even worse ogre.”
The greatest dangers Johnson faces, however, are not merely from the Colonel Gaddafis and the Saddam Husseins of this world, but from a few self-aggrandising politicians and diplomats from his own country, Australia. The real sting in the tale of Hidden Scorpion is the exposure of the seamy extra-curricular activities of a coterie of Australian diplomats who gravely jeopardise the security of ASIS’s Cairo station.
Warren Reed’s Hidden Scorpion is a spy thriller of a very high order, and one which contains quite a few lessons for the reader to ponder.
John Ballantyne is editor of News Weekly.