Cairns Media Magazine
Book Reviews – 21 June 2010
The Brown Envelope Club
First-time novelists often lack the skill, insight and audacity to leap into a world trouble spot to tell an enticing tale. Charles Barker, a globetrotting British hotelier with no such shortcomings, leads his readers on a jaunty adventure, involving Iraq and its neighbours, in The Brown Envelope Club (2010, Inkstone Books, Hong Kong, 267 pages).
The people Barker met, talk he heard and scenes he saw when working at hotels in Oman and Jordan circa the 1990 Gulf War inspired this story set amid real events. Prominent politicians, diplomats, tycoons and soldiers visited or stayed at the hotels.
Fast-paced and provoking curiosity, Barker's lively storytelling style resembles that of his famous countryman Jeffrey Archer. The similarity brings to mind Archer's first novel, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less (1976), also about revenge.
With Barker, a certain high tension never relents. “Although usually nocturnal, the cobra had been disturbed by the arrival of a four-wheel-drive Pajero in the late afternoon and the raucous noise that always accompanies the making of a camp. It was now fully alert and it was angry, fearing to stay, yet fearing to escape. So, glowering malevolently, it watched and waited.”
Sharing the author's travel tendencies, The Brown Envelope Club has settings that shift across the Middle East, England and the Caribbean (notably Antigua where Barker also worked). The rulers of oil-rich nations in the Gulf Co-operation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman), emboldened by the Iraqi army's defeat, behave harshly and arrogantly. Resentments grow, and plot bloom like dandelions. “Many plots, and even coups, had been planned within the walls of the InterContinental but the audacity of the scheme hatched that February evening was going to rock the world.”
This novel “isn't about stuffing dollars into envelopes to hand under tables,” Barker said. “In the Gulf States, brown envelopes are used to present notice to people. After the Iraq war, brown envelopes were given out to contract military people and others, inviting them to leave the region.”
No one enjoys receiving such an envelope. Once back in England, some recipients create the Brown Envelope Club. “You were in the Middle East, weren't you, Mike? That chap's just been thrown out of somewhere called Catter or some such place. Been cursing the Arabs something rotten, he has. Says he was in the army there, teaching them which way round to hold their guns.”
The club members plan massive retaliation. Honestly, being “put out to grass” hardly justifies such an extreme reaction, which makes the book a little unrealistic.
In Baghdad, a sinister Iraqi dictator lusts for vengeance too. “Then must follow the founding of the Great Arab Republic, consisting of all Arab nations... led by Baghdad. We shall then become the next truly great world force, and with our shared resources, will then be able to dictate terms to the West.”
To show Saddam Hussein’s viciousness, the story opens with “a simple tradesman who had done nothing to hurt anyone, but someone must have spoken against him”. Within two paragraphs, “another confused and innocent victim of a fearful regime had been executed”.
When the protagonists enact their plan, gunfire and explosions erupt at “the mother of all summit meetings”. As the death toll mounts, it's difficult to see Barker's “heroes” as fine fellows seeking payback. A nagging realization builds that they're terrorists as nasty as any Al-Qaeda bombers.
One club member asks, “Bleedin' 'eck, major, d'ya reckon we just started World War bloody three?”
That's a possibility. “Tensions were running very high throughout the region. Each nation was threatening war on Iraq or Israel and anyone else who came to mind. It was their natural expression of belligerence and the basic tribal instincts were at the forefront of their reasoning.”
Barker's astonishingly neat conclusion fails the realism test too. Yet readers ready to suspend disbelief slightly still can find much to enjoy.
Now living in Hong Kong, Barker has worked at hotels on five continents, but spent much of his career in the Middle East. Surely, he must identify with a leading hotelier among his characters, but which one?
Is it Lawrence Beaumont? “The Al Bustan Palace Hotel's general manger was an Englishman in his late thirties. Suave and polished, yet with a thoroughly ruthless streak in him, Lawrence Beaumont was nothing if not an opportunist.”
Or is it Eric Wilkinson? “The manager of the St Peter’s Club was a particularly half-witted, inexperienced but very inoffensive Englishman called Eric Wilkinson. Most usually referred to as ‘Wilky’, he had large buckteeth, a usually vacant expression and the habit of driving into ditches.... In short, he was a hopeless driver, a useless hotelier but a genial host....”
The author's hospitality-industry expertise always shows. “After much detailed briefing and subsequent planning, the group had set about their various tasks. There was so much to be purchased, from linen, glass and chinaware, to new furniture and recreation equipment. There were endless maintenance and service requirements....”
For Barker, The Brown Envelope Club, riveting despite its faults, follows a short-story collection, Capital Tales, and a children's book, The Adventures of Godfrey and Oliver. His novel sells at Kelly and Walsh and other Hong Kong bookshops.
The author gives a strong impression he could do even better next time. Will readers keenly await more pulse-quickening yarns from this promising new novelist? Absolutely!
Approval rating: 77 per cent.
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(June 21, 2010)