Book Review: The Siege by Stephen White

The Siege

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.)

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Siege by Stephen White

  1. Margot Kinberg said…
    Maxine – Thanks, as always, for this thoughtful, intelligent and terrific review. I’ve enjoyed the Alan Gregory novels I’ve read, so I shall probably take a look at this one. But as you say, routine treatment of terrorism, outcomes and so on can really take away from a book in my estimation. Still, I do love good character development, and I’m one of those people who can forgive flaws in a book if there is enough good in it for me to stay engaged.

    Reply 20 November 2010 at 15:22

    kdurkin@earthlink.net said…
    I did like this book, thought it originally done, although, too, I can see the irritation at how much the “terrorists knew.” Am glad you read it and I had suggested it, knowing you like the Alan Gregory books. I liked the characters, especially the two strong women who help solve this and intercede to end the “siege.”
    I don’t usually read this type of book (“war on terror”), but liked this one and one reason was that the author ventured to explain the actions of the “terrorists.”

    Reply 20 November 2010 at 16:33

    Maxine said…
    Thanks, Kathy and Margot. I don’t usually read novels on this topic, but this one was worth it. I recently read The Terrorists by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo: my review will come out at some point at Euro Crime. That is a very good novel indeed, very relevant today even though it was written 30 or so years ago. I have to say I enjoyed the Swedish one more than this, but then White is writing more of a straight (very well constructed) thriller without the additional element of a personal, political-social message.

    Reply 20 November 2010 at 16:42

    Dorte H said…
    “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 …” LOL

    I am glad you appreciated the writer´s way of conveying information to the reader which the police ought to know already. It is not always done elegantly, and such clumsy bits of dialogue can seem really funny.

    Reply 20 November 2010 at 20:55

    kdurkin@earthlink.net said…
    I thought that White was trying to understand the anger of people whose villages are being bombed and relatives killed. That hit me as a social message.

    However, I can’t wait to read the Sjowall/Wahloo book, but am waiting to do so as I parcel those out (as the Camilleri’s and a few others) as desserts.

    Reply 21 November 2010 at 02:50

    Maxine said…
    You’re correct, Kathy, but that type of revenge isn’t an original plot device and to me that is just how it came over – as a plot device. For me, this book is a “superior thriller” with the revenge/mirror motif a peg for nasty set-piece executions, and descriptions of incredibly fiendish technological cunning….nothing wrong with any of that but not the type of book I find all that interesting, compared with more of a psychological, individual approach, or one in which the author has thought those aspects through more fully (and realistically!).

    Reply 21 November 2010 at 11:17

    kdurkin@earthlink.net said…
    I’m not a techno-thriller type reader at all. This may be the highest-tech level I’ve ever read. But what I found interesting was the interplay among the main characters, Sam and Dee and the guy, the policewoman and other individuals. I like Sam’s character a lot and then I met Dee and liked her and the policewoman who’s quite clever. It was the human interplay that got me, and then the unraveling of the plot and how it’s stopped, and the fact that the two women were key to that.

    Reply 21 November 2010 at 12:38

    Maxine said…
    Totally agree, Kathy, those were my favourite bits, too. And it is nice to have some strong female characters in such a male-dominated genre!

    Reply 21 November 2010 at 17:37

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