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Literature

Espionage thriller by former spy, about jihad in Japan, is a real page-turner

  • Warren Reed’s an Elephant on Your Nose emphasises the human side of espionage in tale of an international cast of characters out to foil terror in Tokyo
  • The book is let down by his tendency to overexplain, excessive narration, stilted dialogue, lessons in history, and some lapses of judgment
PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 December, 2018, 9:30pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 December, 2018, 7:30pm

An Elephant on Your Nose, by Warren Reed. pub. For Pity Sake Publishing 

3.5 stars

Spy thrillers, particularly those written by former intelligence agents, tend to focus on the high-stakes, high-pressure, high-speed world of field operatives and tradecraft.

But in ex-spy Warren Reed’s An Elephant on Your Nose, the emphasis is on the human side of spying – the diplomacy, deductive reasoning and interpersonal skills that make the business tick. While that might sound like less thrilling material for a thriller, the novel is a proper page-turner, only slightly let down by a tendency to overexplain everything, sometimes in a rather clunky way.

A tightly plotted story involves a warning of a possible jihadist attack in Japan given to Japanese intelligence by their counterparts in Beijing, forcing them to deal with the potential threat while trying to work out how reliable the information is (the book’s title is based on a Malay proverb, “He can see a louse as far away as China but is unaware of the elephant on his own nose”).

The nearest to a protagonist among an ensemble cast of spies, politicians, police officers and criminals is British MI6 officer Isabella Di Stefano Butterfield, in Tokyo to help Japan set up its own centralised intelligence service, who inevitably gets drawn into the terrorist intrigue.

In many ways, the book is a rather touching ode to the work of spies, portraying them as mostly individuals of high intelligence and integrity who keep the world safe, rather than the usual murky manipulators with hearts of ice and a propensity for violence.

While most of the skills on display involve persuasion and information gathering instead of the usual James Bond business, they’re culturally determined – the book constantly emphasises the sensitivity and tact the job requires, particularly across cultures, with Japanese, Chinese, South Korean and British operatives all working together. This welcome emphasis on intellectual and technical skills over physical derring-do makes spying seem less exotic than the standard treatment.

Author Reed is a former Australian Secret Intelligence Service officer, giving the book a ring of truth, and he clearly has a broad understanding of the culture and politics of Asia. But some of the book’s most expository passages feel too keen to parade that knowledge; for example, we learn early on that a table arrangement “was an impressive statement of the essential role that nature played in Japanese culture”.

This tendency to tell rather than show manifests itself in several other ways. One of them is a surfeit of narration, with the reader constantly told what a range of different characters are thinking and feeling, sometimes swapping perspective several times within the same scene. Then there’s an overuse of adjectives and a compulsion to drive home the meaning of everything. The most serious is a tendency to overexplain what everything means, as if the writer assumes the reader isn’t terribly clever.

This huge weight of exposition leads to some stiff, stilted dialogue. Time and again characters explain things to each other that they would clearly already know, but that the reader doesn’t, in particular detailed explanations of spycraft, and long-winded historical parallels that usually sound like a history textbook.

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There are also occasional lapses of judgment, such as the depressing references to Isabella’s biological clock ticking. Even fictional female intelligence agents, it seems, aren’t immune to certain clichés that would never be applied to a man.

Nonetheless, An Elephant on Your Nose cracks along at a highly entertaining pace, and contains numerous interesting insights into the both international power relations and the skills needed to be a successful spy, while its emphasis on brain over brawn is refreshing. All Reed really needed to do differently was cut a lot of the explanations, and take the rest out of direct speech.