James Buchan's intimacy with the cultures of Germany, Central Europe and the Middle East, fostered by his duties as a foreign correspondent on the Financial Times, makes his fiction gleam with the lustre of effortless conviction. Set in the Shah's Iran, in 1974, his fifth novel is imbued with the ritual and formal courtesies of that country, as well as the mounting social and political tensions caused by the Shah's corrupt rule.
John Pitt, an 18-year-old dropout, arrives in the city of Isfahan and uses spurious qualifications to gain work teaching English to schoolgirls. Shirin Farameh, apparently the beautiful veiled daughter of the Shah's ruthless General Farameh, enraptures Pitt, and he swiftly engineers their elopement to the old Russian Consul's forgotten house at the port of Bushehr, on the Gulf Coast. There Shirin bears him a child before their clandestine lives are sundered. She flees on a heroin-smuggler's boat, and he is hunted down by secret agents, imprisoned and tortured.
The stumbling Pitt, with his failed protocols, is ever the foreigner in search of the erotic. Yet Shirin is no innocent; she possesses a shrewish wit and is resourceful. Buchan never allows their courtship to drag, and Shirin's chiding of her husband refreshes both their relationship and the cloying atmosphere of their self-imprisonment in Bushehr. When Pitt has the temerity to comment on how quickly Shirin became pregnant, she says: "For you, Sir, that is abundantly ample time. You would make even your hand pregnant."
A Good Place to Die is an oddly heroic novel that builds on the psychological strengths of Heart's Journey in Winter, Buchan's previous thriller set in Germany during the last years of the cold war. Both novels thread passionate loves into the complex weft of political upheaval, espionage and torture; but while A Good Place offers a beguiling courtship across the arid expanses and antique cities of the Middle East, its predecessor offered a more brutal attachment-in-denial.
"I do not love you, Richard," says Polina Mertz, the "turned" spy of Heart's Journey. "I value our relationship because . . . I don't have to pay you or baby you or do anything for you except fuck you every now and then and that's really not a problem for me, because I'm a professional. I need you to understand that." Polina, I think, is lying, but then that's her job. Her lover, Richard, is at his best when offering mini-diatribes on love, by turns cockily lascivious and vulnerable.
Buchan's stylish prose frees both characters from the hard-boiled shells of so much genre spy fiction because, quite simply, he is an expert writer of love stories. Richard doesn't possess Polina's professional instinct for self-preservation and that, more than anything, provides the novel's chief interest; provides, in a sense, the heart's journey of the title.
A sense of an unbreakable attachment between lovers is also what sustains the new book. For two decades after the Bushehr bolt-hole is destroyed, Pitt drifts through prisons, into wars and along smuggling routes looking out for the ghost traces of his young bride and daughter; or even the scintilla of a hope that they, too, have survived the Iranian revolution. This is his sustenance and vocation. His voice is sometimes muffled and rambling, graceful but pained, and not always sequentially lucid. But the power of his journey against a backdrop and the epic dimensions of his sustained love for Shirin are undeniable.