authors index

books index



Exterminating Angels

click to enlarge

Pluto, London, 1986
(price: 2.50; 204 pages)
first published in 1983 by André Deutsch

The blurb on the back:

Crime with a political edge.
An underground terrorist group with a sense of humour turns a kidnapped racist politician black with injections of pigment, and dumps a tankerful of oil into the swimming pool of a polluter's country home.
Their next target is a transnational corporation which takes their operations to Switzerland and India - and involves the kidnapping of an innocent woman and child. Things start to go wrong, the security forces start to close in, people are killed...

'This is, quite simply, one of the best novels about terrorism I've read ... a novel which refuses to leap to glib conclusions about ends and means. A smoothly written and provocative book' - Time Out

opening lines:
The house where it begins, and where it will end, is a rich, confident building, set back from the road in its own drive, and built in an age when Britain seemed poised to conquer the world.

We start with quotes from two radically different perspectives on the nature of terrorism. Johann Most in 1885 calls for acts of armed propaganda, making clear that the acts themselves are less important than the publicity they can generate. Margaret Thatcher in 1981 agrees up to a point, and demonstrates that she (or at least her speech-writers) had a pretty clear view of how this thing works:

Where will the gunman strike? Whom will the bomber choose? This is the tension that induces cold fear - the atmosphere which the terrorist seeks to create. If he can destroy our trust in a well-ordered society, if he can spread consternation and provoke retaliation - then he is on the way to achieving his ends. Even more - if he can gain some recognition for his cause and some sympathy for this aim - then he can strike a body blow at society's efforts to defeat him.

Thatcher's response to this was to develop the 'oxygen of publicity' argument that she deployed so ineffectually against the IRA later in the decade. But her recognition of the power of armed propaganda is more sophisticated than you're likely to hear from any of today's buffoons.

So, having set the agenda, we proceed to explore a terrorist cell and its operations. Specifically, of course, since this is a fairly orthodox novel, we see the operation too far, the kidnapping that breaks the cell.

And it's all really quite readable. The terrorists pose as mainstream members of society, but are in reality members of the generation that was radicalized by 1968 And All That and that was subsequently disillusioned by the shift from class to personal politics in the '70s. Unlike their real-world contemporaries, however, this lot have a sense of literal humour when it comes to taking action: an oil tanker breaks up, spilling its contents in the Channel, so the head of the petroleum company involved is kidnapped and a million pound compensation package demanded to assist the clean-up operation; meanwhile, the swimming pool at his country home is filled with oil. Difficult not to win public support when you do things like this. You soon get yourselves described as a 'Robin Hood terrorist group', the populist scourge of the transnational corporate cancer that's killing our world.

Their problem, then, (apart from the fact that they're called Exterminating Angel, which is a rubbish name) is that they'll be trivialised, seen as cuddly, friendly types rather than hard-core, hard-bitten revolutionaries. Hence the escalating campaign that hurtles the group to catastrophe. And disaster threatens from two directions: firstly, the secret services are onto our heroes, and secondly, one of the gang gets cold feet about involving 'innocent' women and children in the campaign. I'm not entirely convinced by this latter argument, but it's the kind of thing you have to accept as one of the conventions of the novel format

'One of the best books about terrorism,' claims Time Out, which isn't saying a great deal, but is probably true. At least the focus is on the activists themselves rather than the counter-terrorist forces. And the characterisation is convincing enough.

Peter Dunant is a composite pen-name for Peter Busby and Sarah Dunant. The latter went on to become a regular fixture on late-night BBC arts programming.


Another terrorist novel? Why not?

Donald Seaman, The Committee