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Hollow Target

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Coronet, London, 1978
(price: 95p; 288 pages)
first published in 1976 by Andre Deutsch

The blurb on the back:

A bomb explodes in an oil refinery at Milford Haven. After years of waiting a group of terrorists have at last put their theories into practice. And their first taste of blood leaves them thirsting for more.
Bomb Squad Chief Desmond Havelock knows this job is in a class of its own. The anonymity, the expertise point to something special. Before long Havelock finds himself taking a back seat to the combined forces of the United Kingdom in a desperate bid to outwit and overcome this new enemy.
Britain. Nigeria. The United States. Angola. International terrorism is a desperately dangerous game.

opening lines:
The geese came in low over the trees and plopped fussily down on the lake in front of the house.

So there's this group of students who met at Cambridge in the Sixties and they were all kinda radical types, see, and in the early-Seventies they began to think of themselves as a revolutionary cell who could maybe, you know, do something. Thus far, I'm with them. And indeed, quite a lot further.

Because the target of their actions is one of the world's largest oil companies, and the campaign is specifically designed to cause maximum disruption and to expose the evil of the multi-nationals rather than to take life. As the Home Secretary explains:

'this group is different from other terrorists we have had to contend with. Whether we like it or not they are more discerning, more precise in their attacks and far more dangerous. There are people who seem to feel that the major oil companies are a greater threat than the extremists. It is only a matter of time before misguided people come to regard them as working class heroes fighting the capitalist juggernauts.' (pp. 173-4)

I'm up for that. Was the attack on the World Trade Centre a greater atrocity than Bhopal? Establishment wisdom says yes, because the former aimed to take lives, whilst the latter only aimed to take profits. But the death toll tells a different story.

If I can get down off my soapbox for a moment, let me tell you that this is a really very entertaining novel indeed. It plays off all the Seventies fears of terrorism and the power of the oil giants, it provides a glimpse of an alternative perspective - without, of course, ever endorsing such dissident tendencies - and, above all, it's so well written and well constructed that you'll want to read it to the end. I've got to be honest: that's not true of every book on this site.

There are also a number of really nice observations that fix it in its time. There is, for example, the light-skinned child of a black mother and white father who spends her youth trying to pass as white but who becomes militantly black in the early-Seventies and who is then distressed that she has to white-up for various of her undercover activities: the depiction of that cultural dilemma is nicely expressed. And then there's the sense of the decline of Britain:

Kramer had grown tired ... of London which was no longer the swinging city of the sixties. All the best people had gone. Heading for the next fashionable hot spot. London, and indeed the whole of England, was on the scrapheap It reminded him of Eastern Europe. Creeping socialism, high taxes, austerity, cold porridge and power cuts. (pp.105-6)

In short, it's a neat book, but loses marks for the appallingly dull cover.


Another terrorist novel? Why not?

David Lippincott, The Voice of Armageddon