Dorothy Johnston Reviews 'An Elephant On Your Nose'

Spies often come in for a bad press, in real life and in fiction, for their bungling and their treachery. More often than not, it’s the mistakes and betrayals that come to the attention of the general reading public. An Elephant on your Nose presents a different view.

British intelligence operative Isabella Di Stefano Butterfield, or Bella, as she is called throughout Warren Reed’s novel, is in Tokyo to help the Japanese restructure and improve their intelligence agencies, when word comes through of an Islamic terrorist plot. The plot, if successful, has the potential to kill hundreds of thousands of people. Bella and Chinese spy Li Weiming – news of the plot comes to Tokyo from China – join a group of Japanese and Koreans who must find the explosives and the men who plan to detonate them before it is too late.

The novel follows the step-by-painful-step building up of knowledge: of the terrorists’ movements; shipping arrangements; secret meetings with each other, and their final targets. But if you think this kind of intellectual approach makes for a boring read, then you’d be very wrong. I will never forget the tension in the operations rooms: the struggle to cope with masses of data, looking for the tiny speck; the terrible urgency; the anxieties and fears of the people involved; but most of all their wonderful co-operation.

For at the heart of Reed’s story are the ways in which police and intelligence officers from very different backgrounds, not at all natural allies, come together to find the terrorists before they strike. Head of Japan’s National Police Agency, Hasegawa Junichiro, is ambitious and domineering. The leader of his electronic surveillance team, Saito Makoto, is brilliant at what he does, but also possesses the ability to work well with others, as does Kim, a young Japanese/Korean policewoman. Close friends Bella and Li understand each other intuitively.

Readers learn enough of the characters’ backgrounds to understand where they are coming from, including the backgrounds of the terrorists, one driven by hatred of the Japanese and determined to seek vengeance for past atrocities committed against his family.

All these cross-currents are threaded together while those working in the operations room inch forward, snatching an hour’s sleep if and when they can.                 

The novel’s title comes from an old Malay proverb. ‘He can see a louse as far away as China but is unaware of the elephant on his nose.’

Reviewers need to be more than usually aware of plot spoilers. There are several twists at the end, the most important of which involves the Chinese and gives added meaning to the title.   

In his author’s note, Reed says, ‘Spy services around the world, by their very nature, operate largely along the fault lines of great change…Spies can work wonders in the oddest of circumstances, coping with contradictions and ironies that would flummox most people. It is a form of agility and resilience unique to the craft.’

Reed should know. He is a former Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) agent, fluent in written and spoken Japanese, whose other language studies include Mandarin, Bahasa Indonesian and Arabic. Reed is a regular media commentator on espionage and terrorism, often sought out to comment on the human side of spying.

It is this ‘human side’ that gives his novel its depth and resonance. A group of people, experts in their own fields, come together to work on an urgent task. They are people who would, in the normal course of things, be mistrustful of each other, with good reason. Mistrust is set aside until the task has been completed. Reed has created a memorable work of fiction.