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The Committee

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Futura, London, 1979
(first published by Hamish Hamilton, 1977)
(price: 90p; 208 pages)

dedication: For Mike and Jane

The blurb on the back:

'Standing in windswept isolation on the Sussex Downs was Britain's best-known criminal lunatic asylum. 600 men and women whose names sent a shudder down every spine: poisoners, bombers, axe-men, stranglers, child killers...'
Their contamination by a lethal dose of atomic radiation is only the beginning of the most bizarre and terrifying extortion case of the century - a case that leads Donald Seaman's redoubtable agent, Sydenham, half way across the world in search of The Committee.

'Horrifyingly plausible' - The Times
'Fiendish ... something for everybody' -
The Guardian
'Crashes into a shuddering and powerful climax' -
Publishers Weekly

opening lines:
General Sir Nicholas Fawcett began the final and hugely uncomfortable crawl through the sodden peat bog with a song in his heart.

In which we encounter the combination of international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, more than a quarter of a century before Bush and Blair decided to use the same potent image as a pretext for invading wherever they saw fit. Here, however, we get the earlier bogeymen: not Al-Qaeda but communism, not chemical weapons but nuclear material. A new group calling themselves the World Revolutionary Freedom Committee hire a group of freelance terrorists to steal some Strontium 90, which they threaten to unleash on British cities unless their demands for 50 million pounds in gold bullion are met.

It’s a decent enough thriller, written without benefit of chapters to give it a bit of urgency, but it does leave rather too many gaps for my taste. In particular, the demand being monetary rather than political was a little disappointing. And the separation between the ideological revolutionaries and the mercenaries seems more useful in terms of plotting than accurate in terms of reality: did genuinely motivated Marxists employ hired muscle? I have my doubts. However the inclusion of these professionals gives us an opportunity to cast a sideways glance at where Britain has gone off the rails – their leader is a young man who never did fit in:

His teachers tried to understand him, failed, and quickly learned to fear and detest him. Corporal punishment was outlawed, detention and imposition only made him more defiant and insufferable. He rejected family love and discipline. He was a rebel wholly without a cause. (p.65)

And in case we’re not fully getting the point about the state of our modern nation, one of the revolutionaries explains why they’ve chosen Britain as their first target:

It’s run-down and disillusioned, and industrially sick, a nation which has lost its way. And as a result, the moral fibre of its leaders has been eroded to a degree where all seek the easiest way out of each ensuing crisis. Yet at the same time it is a country which has an uncensored and highly efficient Press and broadcasting system, so that any threat to the public safety must be given maximum publicity in a matter of hours. Those two factors make it the ideal country to attack. (p.38)

In other words, this fits comfortably into the rash of 1970s populist thrillers lamenting the decline of the country. A qualified success, then.


Another book on 1970s terrorism? Why not?

Jon Burmeister, The Weatherman Guy