The Grand Mirage

  • Darrell Delamaide
  • Barnaby Woods Books
  • 304 pp.

In this sweeping thriller that captures 500 years of Middle Eastern history, treachery surrounds an upper-crust British spy sent to check out the Baghdad Railroad project.

Reviewed by Lawrence De Maria

Darrell Delamaide’s The Grand Mirage can be enjoyed as a straightforward adventure/spy thriller. Or, given the author’s incredible attention to detail and knowledge of the era in which his story unfolds, it could also serve as a crib sheet for anyone cramming for a degree in Middle Eastern history.

That’s not surprising, given the author’s pedigree. Kansas-born and Missouri-raised, Delamaide is a Fulbright scholar with a master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. With more than 30 years’ experience in journalism, business and finance, he is the author of two nonfiction books on international finance, Debt Shock and The New Superregions of Europe, and Gold, a financial thriller. As a journalist, Delamaide traveled on assignment all over Europe as well as to Africa, the Middle East and Australia.

The breadth of Delamaide’s experience shows in his descriptions of time and place. One gets thirsty and saddle sore crossing the sands of Arabia with Lord Leighton, his upper-crust but heroic protagonist.

The Grand Mirage begins with a massacre. It is the Middle East, after all. The year is 1910 and Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, a burgeoning empire, is collaborating with the ancient Ottoman Empire to build the Baghdad Railroad, which will connect Berlin to the Persian Gulf. Even at this distance in time, it is obvious that lot of people might not be overjoyed at such a prospect. Most of them lived in Great Britain, and feared the military potential of such a railway in time of war. But Big Power rivalries often took a back seat to local, regional, and tribal political machinations. When more than 50 Kurdish and Turkish workmen and soldiers have their throats slit and both the Germans and British are mystified and horrified, it’s a certainty that others had their own scimitars to grind.

Enter Lord Leighton, a handsome, 30-ish former soldier and Middle East scholar pressed into service by the British Foreign Office as a spy. The British want him to find out all he can about the railway. It’s pretty clear that he will be on his own and at the mercy of enemies, when there are no cell phones to dial 911 and even misjudging the distance to the next water hole can be fatal. As it turns out, some of his British “colleagues” think him extremely expendable, and are just as dangerous as the German killers on his trail.

It was an era when the British class system was in high flower (Leighton has a trusted batman named Broome), but many aristocrats at least earned their keep by their patriotic willingness to do anything for King and Country. Such devotion to duty would soon get a lot of them killed on the Western Front in the Great War. In Lord Leighton’s case, he already had narrow escapes in the Boer War, and during his new assignment must contend with a virtual United Nations of potential assassins. The blood flows freely throughout as the Germans, British and Turks get in some needed practice for the upcoming slaughter of the Great War, and Kurds, Armenians, Arabs, Bedouins and others try to outdo themselves in treachery.

There is even an American on the scene: A tough, mysterious chap named Bill Morrison, confidante of Teddy Roosevelt from their Rough Rider days and now an unofficial spy for the United States. Morrison quickly makes common cause with Leighton, who is glad of the help.

Roosevelt is not the only big name dropped. Lord Leighton knows the young Winston Churchill, who is just making a name for himself in British politics and wants Britain to secure Middle Eastern oil for the British Navy, just then converting from coal. One wonders if even Churchill, who by all accounts went on to have a pretty decent career, had an inkling of the river of blood that would be caused by the world’s coming thirst for oil.

Leighton, Morrison and the vastly underpaid Broome (when not drawing baths for his boss he fights off heavily armed assailants) are attacked so many times it’s a miracle they survive. Well, not exactly a miracle. It’s soon apparent that someone has Leighton’s back. That guardian angel is not revealed until the very end.

Leighton’s assignment becomes more personal when he runs into Elena, his beautiful former Armenian lover, now married to Mehmet Talaat, a powerful Turkish minister whose political hatred of Leighton is exacerbated by his knowledge of the affair. Add Talaat to the list of people Leighton must watch out for. In fact, during his travels through mountains, desert, and tundra ― from Constantinople to Baghdad and back (with a few interesting side trips) ― the only folks Leighton can truly relax with are Morrison, Broome and a few doddering diplomats at British and American embassies who are never short of good whisky.

Except for the proverbial “good German” who makes a late appearance, most of the Kaiser’s crew are rotters, typecast as the soon-to-be Huns of World War I. Captain Horst Ernst is a particularly nasty thug. But one could argue that the Nazis were the best thing that happened to the Kaiser. After Adolph Hitler, few people care that Wilhelm was such a fatuous troublemaker. To be fair, it must be said that a couple of the Brits in The Grand Mirage are nothing to write home about, either.

No novel as ambitious as The Grand Mirage is without flaws. Like many writers whose knowledge of their subject matter is comprehensive, Delamaide occasionally lays on too many details. Sometimes it seems that every pot, statue, rug, painting, mural, article of clothing, landscape, house, park, boat and artifact is described. And it is probably inevitable that a book concerned with such a cauldron of intrigue can be, at times, confusing.

But this is a picking of nits. Delamaide’s prose is uniformly entertaining. If it was his intention to pluck 21st-century American readers from their living rooms and deposit them in the mysterious and dangerous souks of the Middle East ― and give them 500 years of history lessons to boot ― he has succeeded admirably.

At the end of The Grand Mirage, an impressed Churchill asks Lord Leighton whether he would be willing to take on other dangerous assignments. Of course he would.

One hopes that Delamaide comes up with a few more. If he does, Broome should consider early retirement.

Lawrence De Maria was a senior editor and writer at The New York Times and Forbes. His many Page 1 articles led the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-nominated coverage of the 1987 stock market crash. He now lives in Naples, Fla., where he writes short stories and novels, as well as book and film reviews.

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