A State of Fear, Joseph Clyde’s new thriller*, stands out for many reasons. Thrillers only work if they are thrilling, and Clyde’s description of the search for the terrorist who planted a dirty bomb in central London keeps the reader fascinated. The best thrillers are more than just page-turners, however, and Clyde presents a convincing picture of what Britain could look like after law and order breaks down and the economy collapses.
Like all dystopian novelists, he takes conflicts in the present and imagines how they will play out in his imagined future. Today’s sectarian divisions and the failure of Britain to deal with them, or even admit they exist, clearly fascinate him. After the nuclear bomb explodes, racial gangs terrorise the innocent and the uncomprehending bureaucracy does not know how to cope with mass radiation poisoning and the breakdown of constraints.
More unusually, the thriller is about an Islamist attack on Britain. Whatever subtleties he offers the reader, Clyde is not frightened of saying that Islamists are an enemy. You should buy this book for that reason alone because very few writers are prepared to be as blunt.
One of the strangest features of mass culture over the past decade has been the near-total break between what thriller writers write and what spies do. Since 9/11, the fight against radical Islam has consumed the time of intelligence services and anti-terrorist police forces. Yet it barely features in spy fiction. The standard plot device remains the enemy within. The Bourne films were the most successful thrillers of the 2000s, and deservedly so. But it was not al Qaeda but corrupt and unscrupulous officers in the CIA, whom Bourne had to fight. In the recent Bond films, 007 is also up against a cabal of western conspirators rather than a plausible foe.
As soon as you see a government minister, or intelligence or police chief in television drama, meanwhile, you need only set your watch and count the minutes until the hero exposes him as the cancer at the heart of society. I watched the BBC’s spy drama Spooks for no other reason than to marvel at how its hack writers avoided the Islamist in the room. In 2005, when real Islamists were bombing London, Spooks had environmentalists trying to destroy the capital. In 2006, it looked as if the BBC was facing the world as it was when it showed an Islamist cell planning an atrocity. The attempt at realism could not last. In the final twist, the Islamists turned out to be the tools of Mossad. According to the BBC, terrorism was a Jewish conspiracy, as white far right and Islamists groups had said after the bombing of the World Trade Centre.
There are exceptions, most notably Homeland, which a grateful public fell on because it at least tried to say that the war on terror was something more than a conspiracy by the power-grabbing elite to befuddle the doltish masses. But the general rule in fiction remains that the attack the audience should worry about the most is the stab in the back.
Fear is the common explanation for the evasion. The punishments meted out to Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the Danish cartoonists – and that is before we come to the suffering of liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims – stand as a warning to writers to steer clear or face the consequences. But cowardice, though everywhere, is not reason enough to explain self-censorship. The risks of assassination remain low, after all. As effective in shutting people up is the taboo mainstream society, particularly in the arts and journalism, has built. Those who break it risk professional ostracism rather than physical violence. Respectable society argues that writers should not give material to Islamophobes and racists. Those that do are by implication racists themselves – an excuse that would carry more validity if it did not reveal the tacit (and racist) assumption that all Muslims support terrorism.
Clyde breaks a taboo driven by cowardice and self-righteousness with some aplomb. He paints a convincing picture of how sexual frustration can lead to violence when he shows “the Syrian,” the Islamist mastermind of the bomb attack, as a young man at Cairo University. The Syrian falls for a girl he thinks will make him a submissive wife. Unfortunately for him, she has ideas of her own.
One day he saw her on a restaurant terrace with a Canadian, drinking wine. The discovery that she had taken the road to hell gave him an acid pleasure. In Jamila he had witnessed the degeneration of a woman who might have made him a pious wife, not just into a whore, but into a whore of the infidels. It was Allah who had done this, given him the best lesson he would learn at university, and in the bitterness of his heart he was grateful.
The most frightening characters in the book are white racist thugs, who burn mosques and murder British Muslims in the chaos that follows the explosion. The reader never feels, however, that Clyde drew them in a panic because he felt he had to balance Islamist terrorists with white terrorists to counter accusations of some phobia or other. He delivers his depictions of ethnic gang warfare without embarrassment or self-consciousness.
‘This is how I think Britain is,’ he seems to say. ‘Don’t blame me if you don’t like it.’ Clyde is particularly good at showing the class resentment behind the far right, which has its own conspiracy theory about the enemy within. His reporter, Martin, goes to an urban battleground. When Martin interviews a gang of ‘patriots’, they turn on him and accuse him of membership of the liberal media elite.
“He’s one of the Jeremies,” they cry. “Fuckin’ country can be zinging with radioactivity and the Jeremies will be in their studios doin’ in depth interviews with their Muslim scholars, so-called…Time to choose sides, Martin. You with us or with the Jeremies?”
Joseph Clyde may be just a thriller writer but he knows something that other writers most notably in television need to learn: you can’t write well with one eye over your shoulder; you cannot concentrate on producing your best work if you are anticipating the disapproval of others and adjusting your work to suit their tastes.
The unsuspecting reader will not know it, but A State of Fear contains one more detail that tells us much about the present. “Joseph Clyde” is a pseudonym of a public figure, I am sure you would have heard of, who did not want to put his real name on his book for the reasons I listed above.
*On the Amazon site you can download the opening chapters as a free sample.Tags: Britain, Class, far right, Fiction, Islamism, Media, political correctness