There’s a reason why the Namib Desert can be called a Forbidden Zone – there are many ways to die in those sands, and even more ways to die in the freezing cold waters of the Atlantic off those sandy shores. So it’s not a place where you’d go without good reason. However, the actual reason for there being Forbidden Zones on the coast of Namibia, even today, is that those zones are where diamonds are mined, and where diamond theft can get you a short walk to a long prison sentence. Throw in a world war and people with guns, axes to grind, and greed, and you have a setting for damnation waiting in the dunes. It takes an insider to know this place and to be able to spin a tale about it – which Jon Gliddon is.
As a Mining Engineer he knows about interesting places that ordinary people have never been to, like diamond mines. Diamond mining and smuggling is a main theme in his latest historical thriller, just out, is called The Forbidden Zone. The precision and intriguing detail in the novel demonstrate that his mind still works like that of an engineer, and that he knows his subject.
In the tense days before WW II, the protagonist, “Harvey Tremayne”, manager of the world’s richest diamond mine in former German South West Africa, is driven to avenge the death of his wife who was killed by “Christoff Jager”, leader of the diamond smuggling ring who supplies the Nazis. Jager and his embittered comrades will do anything to restore their country’s independence in the region. Meanwhile, in Berlin, Hermann Goering, Supreme Commander of the Luftwaffe, is apoplectic with rage at the slowdown in fighter bomber production – the Third Reich is running out of the industrial diamonds that are indispensable components of the boring, drilling, polishing and turning tools used in aircraft manufacturing.
In London, Prime Minister Winston Churchill is intent on starving the Nazis of any new supply of industrial diamonds – since the UK and America also need the stones, and so does every country that manufactures aircraft. Churchill needs a man – who else but Tremayne? – who can go to South West Africa and make sure the diamonds get to the Allied forces, and not to Germany. But then, Jager is intent on doing exactly the opposite. No matter on which side of the geopolitical battle for supremacy these men find themselves, the ultimate winner promises to be the unforgiving, blistering, diamond-rich stretch of desert that is the Forbidden Zone.
All action, no sob-story
I found it hard to put down because the plot is tight, the deaths numerous and the people mostly pretty awful. Neither Tremayne nor Jager are averse to using force to get what they want, and both think they have the moral upper hand. But of course, in a world war, one side’s saboteur is the another side’s patriot.
Another reason I kept on reading is that I’ve been to Namibia; I’ve dipped a foot in the outer edge of the sand dunes of the Namib Desert, and then quickly got back to the car and back on the road. I imagined that if we broke down there, we were as good as dead. So, I was fascinated by Gliddon’s settings and his descriptions that are exotic but also accurate – you can go look them up: the Forbidden Zone in the Namib Desert, the Skeleton Coast of South West Africa (now Namibia), Lüderitz, the Boegenfels (“Bogenfels” actually) Salt Pan, diamond mining in Namibia, etc.
The history of diamond mining in what is now Namibia is actually fascinating. The name of the mine that Gliddon uses in the novel, “Lewala Diamond Mine”, is quite apt – there is no mine with such a name that belongs to the De Beers Group, but Lewala is the name of the man who found the diamond that started it all:
“”The official story of Namibia’s diamond history starts in 1908, when a young railways worker, Zacharias Lewala picks up a large shiny diamond whilst on duty near the country’s southern coastal town of Luderitz. Little did he know that this nondescript act would set off a chain of events so large, it would change the course of history forever. An avalanche of fortune hunters, whose eyes sparkled in awe of the world’s purest, most precious diamonds, descended on this desert land. As a result of the diamond rush, cities grew from the sand, some of which are mere remnants of the past.Namdia – The Official History (Namdia, the Namib Desert Diamonds (Pty) Ltd)
The German colonial government, which at the time had control over what was known as Deutsch Süd West Afrika (German South West Africa), declared the diamond rich areas of the country as Forbidden Areas or ‘Sperrgebiet’ and small mining operations set up shop within these areas. After World War II, most of these colonial mining companies were amalgamated to form Consolidated Diamond Mines (CDM), which held the monopoly of the mining rights within this ‘Forbidden Area’.
The Forbidden Zone – on and off shore
The no-go (“forbidden”) zones in Namibia where diamonds are still produced today include inland, coastal and marine areas. People have for centuries had mad compulsions to get their hands on diamonds, whether dredging them from river beds, scooping them from the ocean floor or digging them out of the ground. In Namibia, the De Beers group recovers diamonds from the northern and southern coastal regions, from the bed of the Orange River, from the shallow Atlantic Ocean, as well as from the deep sea around 120 to 140m below sea level. All these locations feature in The Forbidden Zone.
It helps to be an engineer when figuring out the details
Apart from the setting, characters and plot, what is it that makes Gliddon’s writing enjoyable? For one, it is written in a direct, concise style which suits the genre, pace and plot. The events are described in precise detail to the last minute, as timelines cross and conflict and the plot builds to a climax. He presents the events like a military manoeuvre – first this, then that, then to here, then back there, with this exact thing, in that exact way, for so long, etc. etc.
Since the action is determined by the countdown to an almighty explosion, the arrival of a submarine off the coast, a deadline of delivery to the Reich, and scheduled security patrols and marches, this approach is fitting. One minute out could mean someone is literally dead in the water.
“Being a bloke and an engineer I think the next novel will likely be more nuts and bolts action.”Jon Gliddon, in answer to the question on why he prefers writing action novels
I personally like novels like these that have a high degree of realism, detail and technicality, and I enjoy reading writing in a style that has benefited from thorough editing, sticking to the essentials and cutting out any unnecessary “purple prose”. I don’t like feeling that the author is deliberately trying to move my emotions and being unnecessarily verbose. Gliddon has pared this work down to its essence.
“Stephen King in his book on writing says to take the first draft and cull it by 10%. As it happens The Forbidden Zone was over 88k words when I finished the first draft. I think it was 83k when I sent out draft 2 and it’s now 81k.”Jon Gliddon on editing The Forbidden Zone
Occasionally Gliddon’s very, very dry sense of humour emerges. He uses throwaway lines to good effect:
“We’ve shed about ten tons of rust.”– The Forbidden Zone, by Jon Gliddon
“And an anchor, sir.”
His writing style now has a bit of a Nordic Crime feel to it. The drama is not so much in the creative ways in which people are killed, but in the cool writing style and the situations and settings in which the characters move like figures on a chess board.
No suspense novel unless it is suspenseful
The single biggest criterion of a suspense or action novel is that there must be suspense. It must be about terminal moments. Nothing else matters. Gliddon knows how to build suspense. I am not exaggerating when I say that I just had to get to the end of the novel and read well past midnight, and my goodness, that was one hell of a climax. I took a kind of blood-thirsty enjoyment from the interesting and most appropriate ways in which he kills people off. Not to give the plot away, but they include death by skewering, embedded pyrotechnic and Carcharodon carcharias. (Go look that up, already.)
You are not going to get many thrillers set in this particular neck of the woods, in this particular period, and about this particular thing – diamonds. Get the book, go sit somewhere comfy with a glass of something pleasant to drink, and let Gliddon take you away to the hot, dry desert where the corpses pile up.
I was a test reader and critic of this novel’s early manuscript. I have personally observed Mr. Gliddon, a colleague of mine from years back, take on a new identity as an author. It is a journey that I view with some envy. Writing novels is not for sissies, as they say. I am intrigued as to what he will write next.