A Breed of Heroes is a war novel, but of a very unusual kind. It is set in Northern Ireland at the beginning of the Troubles. The protagonist, Charles Thoroughgood, is an over-educated Oxford graduate who joined the military in search of comradeship and connection with other human beings. Commissioned a lieutenant, he finds himself cast into a situation of paralyzing boredom, pointless cruelties, and fathomless hatred. When he recognizes a (Catholic) child injured by playing with a pipebomb abandoned by the IRA, the mother tells him that she would rather see her child bleed to death than rescued by the Army.
There are few heroics in this book – except for the heroism required to endure a commanding officer who regards gravy as a crime against humanity, or commissary officers who reject as willful extravagance requests for new socks to replace those stained beyond recovery in operations in the sewers.
The novel climaxes in a great comic setpiece.
A huge cache of arms are discovered during an unauthorized surreptitious search of a monastery. The chief monk threatens the officer in charge: We will publicly denounce this violation of the sanctity of Church property. The officer suavely parries: Of course it is unthinkable that any of the monks might be implicated in terrorism, but conditions being as they are, we fear that not all sections of the northern Irish community will be as understanding – indeed, many might regard the Catholic Church as having authorized the terrorism.
The elaborate negotiation by which the monk and the officer agree on a lie that preserves the bogus innocence of all parties is a moment of literary genius.
The author of the book, writing under the name Alan Judd, is a former soldier and diplomant with extensive experience of some of Britain’s most daunting security challenges. He has followed this first novel, published in 1993, with a clutch more, and I look forward to reading all of them.