Scoundrel is the last in the batch of non-historical thrillers by Bernard Cornwell that I had sitting on my bookshelf. It is a short book compared to the others, published in 1992 and set a couple of years earlier, just as Iraq invades Kuwait and coalition forces are mobilised to intervene. The titular character is the American Paul Shanahan who moved from Boston, USA, to join the Provisional IRA (I’ll refer to them as the ‘IRA’ below just for conciseness). There are spoilers below, so stop reading if you intend to read this novel.
There’s some uncertainty as to whether Shanahan has been working for the CIA and that was certainly the subject of allegations levelled at him and the reason why he has been shunned by the IRA for some years since being fully operative helping smuggle arms and bring people to secret training camps in the Middle East. The unproven allegations came from his ex-lover Roisin who was murdered in a training camp in Libya. Shanahan bears the guilt of her death while working in Belgium in a boatyard.
The call to action comes for Shanahan when he is hired by old contacts to sail a boat with USD 5 million worth of gold coins in its keel from Europe to the U.S. to pay some Colombian arms dealers for 52 surface-to-air Stinger missiles. However things don’t add up. Why don’t the terrorists just use a wire transfer, why hire him of all people and why did the IRA send two rookie operatives to accompany him on the voyage?
It soon becomes clear that Shanahan is a rather crooked character who is working for the CIA in sleeper role – only intending to come in when he has scored a really important piece of intelligence against the Middle East terrorists that the IRA are pals with – but also intending to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes and steal the gold to keep for himself. He murders the two young IRA men and dumps their bodies in the sea, hides the boat, and then flies to the U.S. where he quickly liaises with the CIA and over the course of a number of weeks is debriefed – spinning them a yarn that protects the U.S. from terrorist reprisals from the Iraqi sympathisers but also hides any sniff of the gold.
Set free to build a new life by the CIA it’s not long before Shanahan runs into trouble in the form of the IRA who want their gold back. He is tortured but not killed and has to give up the gold. But he uncovers a story of manipulation that goes beyond his personal circumstances to reveal a larger plot and the real reason why the boat needed to come across the water to the U.S. The stakes are raised to build a satisfying conclusion.
The problem I had with this book despite it’s good pacing and keen plotting was that I had zero sympathy for the main character. He is more than a scoundrel – he is a liar, a cheat and a murderer. He has only one redeeming quality and that is his patriotism toward the U.S. which I guess stopped me from throwing the book at the wall. The super-cold way he bumps off the two young IRA chaps is a shock which turned me off within the first 100 pages and I was glad I only had another 200 or so to spend with Shanahan. There’s some remorse shown for his involvement in what happened to Roisin, but the idea of taking a few lives to save the lives of many is something that I found hard to accept.