THE CONTRACT by Gerald Seymour


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After a slow, laboriously expository first half, this East/West defection thriller begins to deliver a genuine, if familiar, tragedy of Cold War manipulations. Young Soviet interpreter Willi Guttmann, having fallen in love with an Englishwoman in Switzerland, has escaped into British custody (faking his own drowning death). And though Willi himself has no secrets to spill, his father happens to be Dr. Otto Guttmann, director of Russian antitank missile research. So British Intelligence makes painstaking plans to use Willi (a reluctant, trembling collaborator) to persuade Dr. G. to defect from his vacation home in Magdeburg, East Germany: while British agents set up an escape route with help from an ex-Nazi mercenary, a special agent--Johnny Donoghue, inactive and zombie-like since mistakenly shooting a teenage girl in Belfast--will go to Magdeburg, tell Dr. G. (and daughter Erica) that Willi is alive, and persuade them to escape with him to the West. Seymour (Harry's Game, The Glory Boys) carefully, but without wit or flair, fills in everyone's thoughts and actions: the briefings, Johnny's tortured memories, Willi's misery, the escape-route arrangements, the Intelligence officers' shady motives (they try to keep the operation a secret from the P.M.). And the revolving focus also turns, with seeming (yet purposeful) irrelevance, to a young East German soldier and his teenage girlfriend--who are planning their own border-crossing to freedom. Still, if these first 200 pages are often exasperating in their workmanlike detailing of a not-very-original situation, the final chapters nearly justify the buildup: Johnny, intent on exorcising his past, succeeds in winning the Guttmann's trust; because of an international foulup (Bonn is furious about not being informed of the operation), the East Germans are tipped off; the British back off, the escape car never arrives, and so the Guttmanns and Johnny (who nobly declines to save his own skin) must try to flee on their own--a border-crossing ordeal which will indeed involve that young East German couple. (Furthermore, Willi is now, ironically, running back East to save his father from this dangerous journey.) True, one has to wonder if Seymour couldn't have led up to this gripping finale with a more focused and involving first half. But readers willing to plod along through a good deal of uncompelling, fragmented background material will find a taut and moving drama waiting at the end of this sturdy, literate spy-suspense.

Pub Date: Aug. 10th, 1981
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston