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South China Morning Post

18 July 2010


The Brown Envelope Club


FICTION – Reviewer: Douglas Kerr Sunday Morning Post, 18 July 2010 Written by: Charles Barker Inkstone Books, HK$175

Here is a novel by a Hong Kong author, from a local publisher. But though the action moves back and forth between the Middle East and the Caribbean, by way of England, Spain, Israel and New York, Hong Kong is not on its itinerary.

There is a kind of book that is so like a film that we could do with a name for this genre. We could call it a "boovie". Sometimes such books are written in the hope that they might attract Hollywood deals: the author goes to meet the scriptwriter half way. But it's just as likely that boovies are written in this way because watching films shapes our imaginations.

The Brown Envelope Club resembles what used to be called a caper movie. The Italian Job or Ocean's Eleven are examples. It starts with a bunch of likeable rogues getting together to plan an elaborate crime. There is a certain amount of banter and a lot of planning, with some impressive equipment, leading to a suspenseful and violent action sequence and a clever plot twist. We can already imagine Brad Pitt and George Clooney rehearsing their British accents for this one.

The story moves forward in short scenes, cutting between photogenic locations. The victims of the caper have to be unsympathetic, the perpetrators charming. There is not much time for character, but there has to be a good deal of the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

A bunch of erstwhile military advisers, mostly English former servicemen, have all worked for Middle Eastern governments and have been fired - given the "brown envelope" - by their ungrateful employers. Learning that the crowned heads of six Middle Eastern nations are planning a conference on the Caribbean island of Antigua, the club plots revenge, involving kidnapping and ransom.

Their activities bring them to the attention of both MI5 and Mossad. Meanwhile in Iraq, Saddam Hussein, smarting over his defeat in the first Gulf war, is hatching a plot of his own against his rich neighbours. The coincidence of the semi-comic caper with the schemes of the dictator is an interesting plot move, though it also mixes the essentially harmless caper genre with a more portentous kind of thriller. We may need Harrison Ford or Daniel Craig for this one. Have our boys inadvertently contributed to starting the third world war? Read to the end to find out.

The story romps along at an enjoyable pace. We are whisked from Abu Dhabi to a Devonshire village, from Antigua to Riyadh. There is not much danger of getting lost in the plot. The English - officer class, except for a cheeky cockney NCO - are all resourceful and manly, the Arabs mostly pampered and overindulged, the West Indians fun but incompetent. Behind this characterisation lies a belief that it was foolish of the Arabs to think they could do without their foreign advisers. In The Brown Envelope Club, the expat strikes back. 

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