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  • Reviews Beside the Syrian Sea
  • Beside the Syrian Sea |  James Wolff
Reviews Beside the Syrian Sea

“A dazzling thriller for our time...gritty and diamond-sharp.” JAMES NAUGHTIE 

“This important book...brought home to me the complex and shifting situation in the Middle East and the danger of looking for simple responses or explanations. I loved the character of Jonas - the quiet man pushed by his own guilt into becoming a hero.” ANN CLEEVES, author of the Shetland and Vera Stanhope crime series. 

“James Wolff's Beside the Syrian Sea has two advantages over the average spy story: first the author clearly knows in detail the complex and murky world of Middle Eastern intrigue; and, without detracting from the pace of his story, he deals with questions of faith and conscience pertinent at every level but so often ignored. An intelligent, exciting and wholly convincing novel.” PIERS PAUL READ, author of Alive and The Misogynist. 

“Tautly-drawn tale of espionage in the badlands of Beirut. Wolff brings the thriller bang up to date as a rogue agent takes on Islamic State - as flawed a hero as Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.” DAVID LOYN, former BBC correspondent, foreign policy analyst, and author of Butcher and Bolt: Two Hundred Years of Foreign Engagement in Afghanistan.

“A compelling story of our times, beautifully written and told with all the authority and authenticity of an insider familiar with the complex and dangerous terrain.” PETER TAYLOR, investigative journalist and author of Talking to Terrorists: A Personal Journey from the IRA to Al Qaeda. 

Beside the Syrian Sea is a gripping tale of plots and counter plots; of militias, spies, and priests; of love of family and loyalty to cause. James Wolff rivetingly describes the lengths to which a British spy will go to secure the release of his father from ISIS.” EMMA SKY, British expert on the Middle East, Director Yale Greenberg World Fellows and author of The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq

“Great characters, convincing detail and a compelling story. All too human MI5 desk jockey, Jonas, is no James Bond but he manages to stay one step ahead of his ex-employers, the CIA, Hezbollah, Isis and the reader right up until the final showdown in the desert.” CHARLIE HIGSON, Actor, comedian, novelist and author of the Young Bond series. 

THE TIMES: CRIME FICTION BOOK OF THE MONTH: "That James Wolff is a pseudonym should come as no surprise to the reader of Beside the Syrian Sea, his superb debut. The writer has obviously been somewhere or something in the spy business. This emerges not so much in the main storyline, but in the fascinating surrounding details. Moreover, Wolff has written a work that seems not to have depended on copying the style and structure of the usual tales of espionage. His flawed spy hero, Jonas Worth, is out of his depth when confronted with news that his aged father has been kidnapped by Islamic State and will be soon executed if a large ransom is not paid. Her Majesty’s government refuses to pay up and Worth’s spy service bosses treat his desire to free his father more as a hindrance than as something they ought to be doing. Worth, a lonely figure, muddles away, stealing some top-secret documents that he tries to use to bargain with Isis. Much happens along the way."

LITERARY REVIEW: This spy story is by an author who ‘has worked for the British Government for the past ten years’. Of course, this careful phrase could mean that he was a driver or janitor, but he does write masterfully about the badlands of Beirut, suggesting that he knows what he is talking about – plots and counterplots, secret agents, ISIS, Hezbollah, the CIA and our own secret services. His hero is responsible for writing reports for British intelligence, but when his father is abducted by ISIS, he turns into a man of action. This is an interesting tale and a good read, but not quite as interesting or good as the over-the-top endorsements by other novelists might suggest. Printing praise from other writers is very fashionable, but I think it alienates as many readers as it persuades.

MORNING STAR: Jonas has a thoroughly white-collar backroom job at British Intelligence in Beside The Syrian Sea by James Wolff. He's that sort of chap, good at detail, socially awkward, rather repressed until his father's taken hostage by Isis while on a humanitarian mission to Syria and nobody cares about the elderly vicar's fate except his son.So Jonas, entirely unprepared by experience or temperament, is going to have to become a field agent for the first and last time in his life, while staying one step ahead of Mossad, the CIA, Hezbollah, Isis itself and his own employers.Superbly written and plotted, both subtle and aware in its politics, funny and exciting, Wolff's debut is also the most surprising and genuine novel about love you'll read all year.

Picked by Simon Sebag Montefiori as one of Best Books of 2018 in the EVENING STANDARD. “Great espionage novels are not genre pieces but studies of betrayal, dishonour, expediency, loyalty — the darkness of human nature, the subjects of all literature. Unsurprisingly, it’s hard to find good ones but I just finished two of the highest quality. Firefly by Henry Porter is brilliant; the brutal hunt for a terrorist jihadist and the long agonising and heartbreaking journey of a young refugee from Syria. Porter is a veteran journalist who turns out to be one of our best thriller writers. Beside the Syrian Sea by James Wolff (Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99), a debut by an ex-spy, is superb: an adventure from London to Lebanon and Syria and the desperate struggle for survival in the face of war and betrayal. Wolff is a new maestro. “

NUDGEBOOK:it is great to find a new spy thriller that is reminiscent of the old Cold War school but with a contemporary topic because they don’t come along very often. Beside the Syrian Sea has a complexity of plot and an intellectual sparring between protagonists that makes you think – both about the themes and the trajectory of the plot. It was a real pleasure to indulge in a spy novel that doesn’t offer caricatured characters or full on action that glossed over the lack of depth. But, just so there is no misunderstanding, there’s plenty of action here too. James Wolff is a debut author of real talent and originality. They don’t come along very often in spy fiction but Wolff is the real deal and Beside the Syrian Sea is an accomplished and exciting read. One that promises a lot for the future. The publisher, Bitter Lemon Press, has lined up some heavyweight authors to extol the virtues of Beside the Syrian Sea and I can only agree with the general praise. This is fresh and contemporary and deals with important topics in an utterly convincing way. If I didn’t know better I would never have imagined that this was a first novel. Clearly, Wolff has personal knowledge of the Middle East and is able to capture some of the fluidity and complexity of the situation there in his novel.

Jonas is the kind of hero that only a thriller can produce, he’s a man making up for his past. When a chance to redeem himself comes along he is prepared to take it and hang the consequences. He’s an analyst, not a field agent, but he soon learns to play the game. Jonas takes a massive gamble, trying to outsmart the terrorists and his own side, all for the love of his father. He is smart, he learns quickly and his lack of experience means that experienced agents and terrorists alike underestimate him. Is he a hero or is he about to become a traitor? What constitutes the definition of a traitor, a man who puts family first? When it comes down to it what is it in life that really matters if not the people we love? Character comes to the fore when Jonas is tested under the worst of circumstances.

The story begins when a British national, Reverend Samuel Worth, is kidnapped from a Damascus hotel while on a mission to support beleaguered Christian groups in Syria. For months there is no progress in finding him, he is probably in the hands of Daesh (ISIS). Syrian military intelligence have arrested the hotel staff, the local workers, the usual suspects to no avail. Jonas Worth flies to Beirut and meets with Father Tobias, a disillusioned Catholic priest, an alcoholic but a man who has intervened in hostage disputes in the past. He manages to convince him to take a message to the kidnappers in Syria in exchange for getting a woman called Maryam a visa to stay in England. The British authorities are not sharing much with Jonas and they are flat refusing to pay the $10M ransom. Jonas has been ousted from his security job in London and marked as a loose cannon. Neither the British nor the American welcome his intervention. Jonas has a plan and he is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to get his father back.

Beside the Syrian Sea is a contemporary spy thriller that ramps up the tension as the plot thickens. There is plenty to get the grey matter working. It’s a tale of the Middle East that recognises the complex nuances of the ever-changing political and social setting.

Wolff has the competing attitudes of the various secret services and the terrorists down pat, their mindsets exposed. The characters are rounded, Hezbollah, Daesh, the Americans and the British all ring true. Tobias, the priest, Maryam, the Syrian refugee, Naseby the British spy and others make a highly credible cast. Beirut and the utter chaos of Syria are well portrayed.

I’m not suggesting Wolff is in the same class as John le Carré or Edward Wilson but Besides the Strain Sea will appeal to their fans. A thoroughly entertaining spy thriller.



The lie was necessary, Tobias,” Jonas said. “It allowed us to establish who you are, what you are. To establish whether you’re the right person to help us with something of huge importance.”

Jonas is 35 years old, a loner working as an analyst in the quieter backwaters of British Intelligence. His personal nightmare erupts when his father, the Reverend Samuel Worth, is taken hostage during an ecumenical mission of support to the Christian Church in Syria. Theirs is not a warm father-son relationship and Jonas is ravaged by guilt at not advising his father better and at allowing their animosities to come between them at what may prove to have been their last contact.

Unable to provoke his employers and the British government to deviate from their policy of refusing to pay ransom demands nor to speak clearly on their progress in negotiating his father’s freedom, Jonas, unkempt and increasingly unruly, begins to foster his own plans. Now, months later and on Special Unpaid Leave which is dismissal by any other name, he has based himself in Beirut. 

He has already been visited by Desmond Naseby who introduces himself as a visiting SIS officer on a brief stay in Beirut and anxious to check up on him. How is he is getting on? Would he like to see the latest on the negotiations in his father’s case, blah-di-blah? Naseby looks around the flat on the pretext of “a niece” coming to study in Beirut and wondering about accommodation. Why was Jonas even here? Turkey, Naseby could understand, but Beirut? And people are concerned about Jonas. This isn’t London. And then of course everyone is worried about that Snowden chap, how much damage a USB stick can do. In turn, Jonas wonders what more he could have done to flesh out Naseby’s portrait of him as a useless mess; “no cause for further concern”. An empty vodka bottle would have been a good idea, plenty of glasses lying around.

Jonas has tracked down his own hostage negotiator. Tobias is a Swiss national, a defrocked and alcoholic priest who has acted as a negotiator in the past. Jonas had presented himself to Tobias as a journalist but now he paints himself as the most secret of secret agents on a mission to get a hostage out of Syria. Tobias is distrustful but eventually consents, demanding his own favours by way of payment: a UK visa and safe passage across the border for a Syrian woman. Jonas realises too late it would have been easier if he had laid the truth before Tobias, that the hostage was his own father. But in accepting the price set by Tobias he has raised the stakes on his elaborate trail of deception which will see him pursued and threatened by MI6, the CIA and both ISIS and Hezbollah during his desperate journey to the Syrian border.

We often talk about unlikely heroes but Wolff's compassionate portrait of his protagonist Jonas, in this his first novel, is exceptional. Driven by a dreadful need to put things right and deprived of his own carefully controlled boundaries and routines, Jonas unleashes within himself – to his own utter bewilderment – what he himself calls a "wildness". And it is this wildness, together with a marshalling of his own habitual tics of memory and pattern recognition which provide the engine for his extraordinary attempt to free his father. Wolff's characterisations do not stop there: the Swiss priest Tobias; Maryam, the Syrian woman fiercely loyal to Tobias; the British agent Naseby who, dressed in tennis whites and clutching his wife's offering of a cottage pie, seems to have stepped straight out of Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy. The foul-mouthed, lethal, CIA man, Harvey, is a more modern beast – as are the London-grown, street-talking, ISIS kidnappers. Wolff’s range of characters are detailed and convincing and in this beautifully constructed thriller he piles on the pressure to the end.

Sometimes I think that crime novels answer a reader's emotional need for justice to triumph, no matter how rough. Similarly, perhaps spy thrillers allow the reader to indulge a paranoid adrenaline-fuelled flight from the all-powerful "they" who are out to get us. Certainly everyone is out to get Jonas and BESIDE THE SYRIAN SEA is a brilliant, gripping and moving thriller.



Beside the Syrian Sea is a debut novel and a contemporary spy thriller set in and around Beirut.

These days, reading classic spy novels of the “British intelligence during the Cold War” variety gives us a comforting distance from reality. The Cold War was a long time ago. It can seem almost quaint now.

Beside the Syrian Sea is a British intelligence spy novel with all the classic trappings but without that comforting distance. This is now. These things might be happening as we speak. There’s nothing quaint about any of it.

Jonas, the son of an Anglican clergyman, works in intelligence for the British government. He’s not a spy. He’s not a guy accustomed to working in the field. He analyzes information from his desk in London. If anything, his father is the more adventurous one. His father is the one who travels to far-flung locations on humanitarian missions. His father is the one who winds up being abducted from a café in Damascus.

[Jonas] had tried to blame his father for being reckless, but found he couldn’t do that…. He could only feel admiration for the spirit of adventure, undiminished by age, that had led a father to ignore a son’s advice, leave the confines of his hotel and wander out into a warm Damascus evening. He wasn’t seen for seven days after that. Then one morning he appeared in a grainy online photograph wearing a blindfold with his hands tied behind his back.

Shockingly (or perhaps not), the British government refuses to negotiate with the kidnappers for his release. If Jonas wants his father to be safely returned, he has little choice but to arrange a negotiation on his own using the only resources at his disposal.

In the end it was the Edward Snowden affair that made [Jonas] realize he possessed something of great value to the kidnappers, a currency more sought-after than cash: information. Jonas broke the law for the first time in his life at 11.15 one Tuesday morning. It was nine days after his father’s disappearance, thirty-six days before he left the building for the last time.

Armed with this “ransom,” Jonas heads to Beirut to meet with the people he believes will travel to Syria on his behalf, negotiate with the kidnappers, and secure his father’s release. Intelligence, by any definition, will only take you so far, however. Jonas must contend not only with duplicitous “good guys”—including the inevitable CIA—but also with myriad distraught and desperate individuals willing to sacrifice anything to achieve their goals. With each interaction, we see just how far out of his depth Jonas has traveled, working his common sense and courage to shreds knowing how unlikely it is that events will come to a tidy conclusion.

Dare I invoke John le Carré here? That’s an awfully heavy burden to place on a debut author, but the comparison is appropriate. Beside the Syrian Sea will appeal to readers who prefer their spy novels populated by imperfect characters on the heady side who still rely on old-school tradecraft.  In fact, the novel resonates with nostalgia for those good old/bad old days of espionage. (“Each day Jonas walked down the Beirut street that Kim Philby had been living on when he defected to the Russians,” we are told.)

James Wolff” is the pseudonym of an officer of the British government who has lived, studied, and worked in the Middle East. Promotional materials for Beside the Syrian Sea (a title taken from the hymn “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”) are careful to point out that “Wolff” had permission to publish the book and that the material has been vetted by “the proper authorities.” This is both reassuring and troubling. Reassuring in that the story is credible and authentic, not some wildly imagined escapade; troubling in that such things can and do happen. In fact, they might be happening as we speak. There’s nothing quaint about any of it.



Reading this debut feels like a stroll in a dangerous section of town. That’s probably how the protagonist in this espionage thriller feels too. Jonas is a former desk-job employee of MI6. His father, part of a church delegation visiting Syria, has been kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists who want $100 million for the 75-year-old’s return. Father and son have been a bit at odds but despite that – or maybe because of it – Jonas has vowed to rescue him.

Jonas worked for British Intelligence, yes, but his experience is thin and contacts few. Author James Wolff puts him and his exploits in the realm of the do-able – making decisions and taking action like an ordinary person rather than a superhero spy. As a result, this is a believable if somewhat erratic and doubt-ridden character, easy to identify with and root for.

The story starts in Beirut, in a seedy bar, where he seeks the help of a middle-aged Swiss priest called Tobias, who was defrocked over some scandal but has previously arranged the release of terrorist-held hostages. He doesn’t at first tell Tobias that this new person to be rescued is his father, which might be a mistake. He does have one trick up his sleeve. Tobias is interested in a woman named Maryam who’s stuck in Syria and Jonas suggests that if Tobias helps MI6 can get her out.

Naturally, he has no official standing in this shaky rescue mission and it’s extremely unlikely he can deliver on his promise to extract Maryam, or on any of the commitments he ultimately makes with Hezbollah representatives, the espionage establishment, and anyone else he thinks can help him. You feel you’re mounting a wobbly tower made of playing cards. One false move and the whole fragile edifice will tumble down around you.

MI6 is naturally unhappy with Jonas’s freelance efforts and sends the tennis-playing Desmond Naseby to befriend and spy on him. Officialdom wants him to return to London and let them proceed at their snail-like pace to try to retrieve his father, if they are trying at all. Jonas doubts they are.

Naseby is quickly followed by CIA case office Harvey Deng. Naseby and Deng believe Jonas holds a strong hand, and he lets them think it. Deng is all business, aggressive and profane, but Jonas and Naseby banter quite amusingly. You’re never sure whether Naseby gets that Jonas is taking the piss.

“Beneath that placid surface beats the heart of a field man, an operator – like me. You can’t stand to be cooped up. Smell of the sea, bustle of the bazaars,” says Naseby.

“Thwack of the tennis racket,” responds Jonas.

I laughed out loud at Jonas’s remark and at Naseby’s ‘like me,’ such a ham-handed attempt to bond with him.

His opponents all want Jonas to think they know more than they actually do, so it’s as if their actions are reflected in a fractured mirror. Nothing quite fits. Despite his shambling demeanour, Jonas has one trump card which is his terrific memory. All those years at his desk reviewing situation reports have turned his brain into a file cabinet of disparate and occasionally even useful information.

Meanwhile, Edward Snowden taints the narrative like a malevolent spirit. Before long, it dawns on the higher-ups that Jonas may have availed himself of some of those secret reports. When it appears he is trying to trade a USB drive for his father, they give his capture the operational name Leaky Pipe and panic sets in.

What keeps the pages turning is that, like Jonas’s MI6 and CIA opponents, you can never be sure how much he really knows, what his strategy really is, or even if he has one. As a result, the outcome of his dangerous mission for himself, his father, Maryam, and Tobias could succeed or, as seems more likely, go disastrously wrong there, Beside the Syrian Sea.


The Catholic Herald :

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.




  • Author avatar
    Francois Von Hurter
  • Beside the Syrian SeaJames Wolff