Shemlan: A Deadly Tragedy

It's the third in a trilogy involving international espionage, treachery, intrigue, murder, and love - all the makings of a good movie.

Shemlan: A Deadly Tragedy is packed with adventure, action, nostalgia, and, for those who knew Lebanon during its 1975-1990 civil war, reminders of how the past comes back to haunt, or kill, survivors.

Author Alexander McNabb's knowledge and understanding of the multifaceted Lebanese landscape with all its nuances weaves in his Lebanese, British, American and other characters' escapades in yet another deadly mix.

Shemlan cover (courtesy McNabb)

Jason Hartmoor, the novel's tragic hero, is a former British diplomat who revisits his old Lebanese stomping grounds to see a former lover before ravaging cancer gets the better of him.

It was Lynch's turn to gaze out of the living room window. Hartmoor sat on the sofa behind.

'You were here at the Arabic studies place, weren't you? Shemlan.'

'I was, yes. The Middle East Centre for Arab Studies. In '78. We had to leave in a hurry. The Civil War. I was in the last class there. It had been going thirty years. It was established during the Second World War in Jordan, but moved to Shemlan.'

'You never came back, though.' Lynch turned, shielding his eyes from the cool sun to read Hartmoor's wary features.

'No, no I didn't. I always went where I was told to go and didn't go where I was told not to go. I regret that compliance now.'

'You were told not to come back?'

'Initially, yes. The Civil War meant Lebanon was effectively off limits for years. Afterwards I told myself I didn't want to see the bombed-out shell of a place I had loved so well. Or disrupt the lives of the people I had known here.'

Lynch is maverick British intelligence officer Gerald Lynch whose assignment is to track down and bring home Hartmoor, whom the Brits believed had leaked secrets to the Russians.

The book's cover is telling - a skull covered in colored pills that Hartmoor lives on, to dull his pain and help him digest his food.

The magnet drawing him back is the village of Shemlan above Beirut where the British government had set up and run a center to teach Arabic.

Hazy view from Shemlan overlooking Beirut (Abu-Fadil)

In its heyday, in real life, the center drew countless diplomats, spooks, and corporate executives assigned to the region.

While most were Brits, there were the odd Americans who also attended its courses, and all were inevitably (if sometimes inaccurately) tagged "spies."

In a nota bene at the end of his riveting novel, McNabb had this to say:

MECAS, the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies or 'the British spy school' located in the mountain village of Shemlan between 1948-1978 was very real, although I have clearly fictionalised its inhabitants. Today the MECAS building still stands in Shemlan, just as Jason Hartmoor found it upon his eventual return, made into an orphanage since the centre closed its doors due to the Lebanese Civil War. Likewise, The Cliff House Restaurant Al Sakhra in Shemlan is also very real and I have similarly populated it with a fictional family who, I hasten to point out, have nothing whatsoever to do with the proprietors of the real Cliff House. There are four main families in Shemlan - the Hittis, Tabibs, Jabbours and Farajallahs who have lived in the village since the year dot. I invented the fifth one. Do go and eat at Al Sakhra if you can, by the way, because it's a magical restaurant.

The Cliff House Restaurant (Al Sakhara) in Shemlan (Abu-Fadil)

Hartmoor's love is Mai Khoury, with whom he unknowingly had a daughter, and only finds out about his child years later when he returns to Shemlan.

But Mai and her family become "collateral damage" when an American drone obliterates them in their restaurant, The Cliff House, after her husband reveals deep secrets about CIA operatives, who Hartmoor had apparently been feeding classified British information in love letters intended for Mai, that ended up in the wrong hands.

The plot in the 238-page novel thickens as the author leads readers back and forth through dramatis personae's recollections, modern-day Lebanon with all its political and social baggage, Palestinians' entanglement in the Lebanese scene and their own webs of deceit, inevitable Syrian machinations in Lebanon, requisite Russian involvement, and a dash of Estonian gangsters thrown in for good measure.

McNabb takes us on a roller coaster ride from Britain to Lebanon, Syria, Estonia, references to Iraq and Israel, and back.

The common thread in his trilogy is Lynch, the British spy, who first appeared in Olives: A Violent Romance and played a bigger role in Beirut: An Explosive Thriller.

The three books are a must read for those who know the Middle East or others with a taste for international intrigue and adventure.

McNabb, a former journalist, editor and magazine publisher, who resides in Dubai and advises companies on their communications strategies, notably digital and online media, co-hosts a weekly radio show there and is a frequent commentator on developments in the technology and online spheres.