Review by Dawn Newspaper -
Books and Authors - 11 July 2021

FICTION: GUNS, GEMS AND HOTELS

Imtiaz Piracha

 

Published July 11, 2021

The Sapphire Stratagem
By Charles Barker
Farman, Islamabad
ISBN: 979-8551524298
327pp.

In his heavily guarded Georgian mansion in England, Marc Chatagnier proposes a new business venture to his associate Dale Laval: mining sapphire in Madagascar.

“Well, that all sounds good and makes sense, but what about security, and more importantly, what will the government say?”

“Well, that’s why I’ve asked you to come over,” answered Chatagnier with a wolfish smile. “I think it’s time that we took over the government.”

“Hell, Marc!” spluttered Laval, choking on his champagne. “That’s a bit of a step up, isn’t it? I’m just a simple ol’ gun runner.” He studied his host. “Jeez, man, you’re not joking, are you?”

Reading like a suspense thriller film, a novel effectively depicts the unscrupulous players — including politicians, governments and big businesses — that have increasingly seeped into our world today

“No, Dale, I’m not joking. There’s treasure just waiting there to be collected and the country is too busy in-fighting and playing politics to see it, at least for now. But it can’t last and sooner or later a tough guy is going to take over with the army, such as it is, and then it’ll be too late.”

Thus begins the meticulously plotted, painstakingly researched and lucid narrative on which Charles Barker — author of several novels including The Iraqi Deception and The Maritime Betrayal — builds his latest offering, The Sapphire Stratagem.

After their father is killed by his criminal associates, mean, ruthless and quick-tempered Marc Chatagnier inherits the shady side of the family business, while his elder brother, Francois — a laid-back individual devoted to enjoying his life, wealth and social position —runs the legitimate hotel chain the family has maintained over two generations. Head-quartered in the United Kingdom, the hotel business is spread all over Europe and is used for laundering the black money that the younger brother earns from a variety of enterprises, including drugs, arms, mining and smuggling precious stones through a network of organised crime that has its tentacles spread all over the world.

From here, Barker takes readers to the African island country of Madagascar, where rampant corruption — characteristic of Third World nations — prevails. In exchange for helping to reinstate the country’s corrupt former president, Marc acquires mining rights in Madagascar’s southeast to explore sapphire deposits. Dominic Siraka returns to power with Marc’s blessings, but then starts having ideas inspired by his greed and begins contemplating replacing Marc with some other shady private partner who can offer more money and is more... manageable. Marc retaliates by finding a new candidate for the presidency to replace Siraka — that is simply how the game of big business and politics is played in this typical Third World country.

Meanwhile, Francois is framed by a Russian gangster and forced into selling his hotel chain well below its market value, gravely damaging the entire conglomerate of the Chatagniers. The Russian gangster believes that the hotel business is a safe money-laundering conduit for his own illegal enterprises, just as it has been for the Chatagniers. This trauma proves to be devastating for Francois and drives him to extremes. Marc retaliates through a complex plan to punish the extortionist Russian and retrieve his family’s hotel chain.

The hype caused by political manoeuvring in a foreign land by private business interests with the help of their armed mercenaries draws the attention of the British intelligence services. Their operative, John Styles, a former member of the United Kingdom Special Forces, fervently launches an investigation in Marc Chatagnier’s operations that span Thailand, St Petersburg in Russia, the Maldives, the UK and, of course, Madagascar. The pursuit builds into an accelerating bloody and relentless war between the authorities and Chatagnier.

After many globetrotting chases by the various players, the showdown occurs in rural England against the backdrop of the Henley Royal Regatta, a sports event consisting of a series of boat races vividly described by the author. Firearms go blazing and turn the cheerful sport festivities into a war zone. The ending of the novel is neatly wrapped and satisfying, though some readers may feel it is rather swift.

In addition to the entertainment aspect, The Sapphire Stratagem effectively depicts the highly sophisticated, corrupt, elusive system, and the unscrupulous players — including politicians, governments and big businesses — that have increasingly seeped into our world today. Barker reveals to the reader the mechanics and intricacies of money laundering, safe havens, and circumvention of international laws on a grand scale by apparently ‘respectable’ individuals. The similarities to high-level malpractices in our part of the world are unmistakable and intriguing.

An experienced hotelier, Barker has worked in several countries which often serve as the setting for his novels. His remarkable storytelling skills, specificity of detail and power to command readers’ unswerving attention, stand out in all his novels that read like suspense thriller films. A variety of colourful, well-constructed characters further make the novel an absorbing read.

The reviewer is a freelance writer and translator of Freedom of the Press: The War on Words 1977-1978; and Mr. and Mrs. Jinnah: The Marriage that Shook India, in English and Urdu respectively

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 11th, 2021