Book Review: The Damascus Cover by Howard Kaplan

Title: The Damascus Cover
Author: Howard Kaplan
Publisher: Kaplan Inc
Publication Date: 7 August 2014

Twitter: @kaplanhow

Rating: 4 out of 5


In a last ditch effort to revive his career, washed out agent Ari Ben-Sion accepts a mission he never would have 30 years ago, to smuggle a group of Jewish children out of the Damascus ghetto. Or so he thinks.

In Damascus, a beautiful American photographer, Kim, seems to be falling in love with Ari, but she is asking too many questions. His communication equipment disappears. His contact never shows up. The operation is only hours away and everything seems awry.

Desperate to succeed, Ari might risk everything. Even his life.


Thank you to Howard Kaplan for providing me with a review copy of The Damascus Cover.

38 years after first being published, Howard Kaplan’s espionage novel, The Damascus Cover, is being re-released both in paperback and ePub versions. The book has also been picked up for film adaptation and the movie, starring Jonathan Rhys Myers, Sir Jon Hurt, Olivia Thirlby and Jurgen Prochnow, is hopefully due for release in 2016.

Ari Ben-Sion (alias Hans Hoffman) is one of Israel’s most experienced spies, however he is guilty of making some very serious mistakes and has developed a weakness for beautiful women, probably to counter the lonely life as an agent. We first meet him in Cyprus where a mission goes astray after he is seduced by a beautiful embassy worker, Michelle, causing him to miss an important radio communication. Ari returns home and is taken off active duty, reduced to desk work whilst they review his position. Is he still suited to active service or has he lost his edge?  Ari starts to get itchy feet and when a mission arises to smuggle the children of an important Syrian Rabi out of Damascus, despite it being below his level of expertise, Ari quickly volunteers in an attempt to salvage his career. A successful mission could push his career back on track. Before travelling to Syria, Ari meets American photographer, Kim, and persuades her to follow him to Damascus where he attempts to complete his mission whilst keeping his true self hidden from Kim. Ari is out on his own and the mission proves to be not quite as straightforward as he has been led to believe….

This is a real old-school spy novel, riveting and atmospheric, full of suspicious characters, political intrigue, danger and suspense. The book begins slowly as Kaplan sets the scene with incredible precision. As the plot twists and turns with dizzying regularity, the pace starts to pick up and draws the reader in until it reaches the last few chapters where the real story unfolds and everything links together, resulting in a tense and emotionally dramatic ending to the story.

I think the characterisation in the book is clever and demonstrates that a person is rarely completely good or completely evil, the reality is more likely to fall somewhere in the middle. Ari Ben-Sion is an interesting protagonist. A washed up agent, frustrated, aware of his failures and with a need to make things right. He seems to hold on to a moral compass, more than some of his fellow secret service agents. He is deeply flawed, but little wonder given the world he inhabits. His love interest, Kim, is another interesting character.  Ari is limited in what he can tell her, but how much of the secrecy can she take and at what point does his behaviour fall across the line of what she finds acceptable? Is there more to Kim than meets the eye?

Despite the novel being almost 40 years old, it does not seem dated and that is most likely because the themes remain relevant in today’s world – those of moral dilemmas and conflicts. The story gives a vivid picture of the political landscape in 1977 Syria. In current day life, we hear a lot about ongoing tensions in this part of the world and it is easy to believe that the situation is not so different now, albeit with focus on different enemies and uneasy alliances created out of necessity between old enemies. The theme of relationships and friendships is also very prevalent throughout the story, showing how easy it is to misread someone’s intentions and how personal relationships does not necessarily supersede one’s duty.

I am not overly familiar with the locations in Israel and Syria, however Kaplan has obviously put a great deal of effort into studying the locations, describing each city in detail, street by street and alley by alley, which really added to the authenticity of the story. Whilst reading, I could imagine Ari walking though the bustling maze of back street alleys in Damascus. The story made me curious as to the cities discussed in the book, particularly Damascus, and I did briefly stop reading in order to look at a few maps and photographs online.

From what I can tell, Kaplan demonstrates a thorough grasp and understanding of the history in the area, giving the story a realistic and believable feel. I am slightly ashamed to admit that I really don’t know much about Middle-Eastern history and the book has made me interested to read up on the Syrian/Israeli conflicts during the 70’s and 80’s.

Overall, whilst 70’s spy novels would not be my usual choice in books, I enjoyed The Damascus Cover more than I expected. I found it to be a timeless thriller, tense and suspenseful, with a historically interesting background. I now find myself interested to read the next book in the Jerusalem Spy Series. I am also interested to watch the film adaptation and hope that it does not stray too much from the book.

As Christmas is coming up, I’m planning to buy a copy of The Damascus Cover for my Dad as I know he will love it.  

About the Author

HOWARD KAPLAN, a native of Los Angeles, has lived in Israel and travelled extensively through Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. At the age of 21, while attending school in Jerusalem, he was sent on a mission into the Soviet Union to smuggle out a dissident’s manuscript on microfilm. His first trip was a success. On his second trip to the Soviet Union, he was arrested in Khartiv in the Ukraine and interrogated for two days there and two days in Moscow, before being released. He holds a BA in Middle East History from UC Berkeley and an MA in the Philosophy of Education from UCLA. He is the author of four novels.

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