Appointment in Tehran is the second book in James Stejskal’s Snake Eater Chronicle series of novels which features a large cast of characters and despite the fact it doesn’t have a main protagonist to follow but several it still manages to be deeply engrossing.
That is because it is set against the 1979 American hostage crisis in Iran and right from the first page there is a fast paced urgency to it whilst still capturing the entrenched Cold War atmosphere of the time. The author’s military and intelligence background certainly shows in his descriptions of hardware and operations but without ever overdoing it and bamboozling a lay reader. He is also scrupulous in creating characters whether they be Americans, Russians or Iranians that seem real and don’t tip over into stereotypical caricature.
Although the outcome of the hostage crisis and the attempted rescue mission is pretty well known Stejskal manages to wring some well wrought suspense out of it showing that even despite meticulous planning; politics, unforeseen events and plain bad luck can all conspire to wreck an operation.
There is quite a lengthy opening section dedicated to the planning of the operation in West Germany but that allows for some of the characters to be fleshed out and the secondary fictional strand of the plot to be introduced. This is perhaps where the author’s own personal experience bears fruit because this aspect feels entirely credible and not the stuff of Hollywood movies as one character exclaims at the end of the novel.
The fictional element of the plot allows for Russian involvement and plenty of Cold War spy craft in Berlin before then bringing in the Soviet military. This is one of Stejskal’s great strengths in that it seemingly begins as an espionage novel before switching into more of a military adventure thriller. That being said it is very much a male affair given the paucity of female characters but that may well be due to it’s historical setting.
The dialogue between the men feels real and lived in too and although there are descriptions of violence it is not portrayed in a gratuitous fashion but rather in a soldierly matter of fact way as being a necessary part of missions carried out in an arena of dangerous conflict. Stejskal also manages to convincingly convey what it could well have felt like being in Tehran at that time as a new regime came into being.
Stejskal has a great skill in fleshing out characters and their backgrounds with economy as well as describing locations with brief clarity. Although written in the third person it does feel like the reader is there in the thick of the action and it may be that Stejskal’s writing reflects his own extensive career in that being able to observe people and situations in great detail and then report on them with brevity and lucidity is a key skill of being in the field.
All in all this is a terrific page turner of a novel that intelligently transcends it’s genre.
Benjamin Peel is the author of the play Not a Game for Girls