*** DEBUG END ***

Beside the Syrian Sea by James Wolff

03 August 2018

Alexander Lucie-Smith reads a dark thriller set in the Middle East

JAMES WOLFF has written a thriller that is set in the troubled world of Lebanon and Syria, under the shadow of the terrorism of Islamic State. Our hero, Jonas, works for British intelligence, and his elderly father, a clergyman, has been kidnapped in Syria. Jonas is determined to rescue him by whatever means it takes.

Jonas is clearly a man in trouble, and his life in Beirut, to which he has drifted to try and save his father, reflects the life of a man who is slowly breaking up under pressure. His colleagues in intelligence are not happy about this at all, and their disdainful and annoyed approach is beautifully realised. Clearly this is a novel about how personal loyalties clash with being a good company man, and how prioritising one’s own loyalties means sacrificing what others hold dear.

Jonas is not a nice man at all: the phrase “moral compromise” hardly covers it. Jonas has stolen some sensitive information to use as a bargaining chip with IS; behind the novel lies Edward Snowden, described as a mercenary who “wants to be paid in celebrity moments rather than in cash”. This is a good evocation of our degraded world.

There are some thrilling moments in this thriller, and some gripping descriptions of spycraft, and the cliffhanger ending is certainly worth waiting for. The first half, with its in-depth investigation of human motivation, moves slowly, being more Henry James than Freddie Forsyth. But some extremely ingenious plotting in the second half rapidly evokes our own world: dangerous; sordid; full of people who cannot be trusted, and innocents exploited by those who do not care; and in thrall to terrorists who are dangerous and deluded problem teenagers.

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Roman Catholic priest, doctor of moral theology, and consulting editor of The Catholic Herald.

Beside the Syrian Sea
James Wolff
Bitter Lemon Press £14.99

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available


Inspiration: The Influences That Have Shaped My Life

September - November 2024

St Martin in the Fields Autumn Lecture Series 2024

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


Visit our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)