Behind The Book: Art Kern’s THE YEMEN CONTRACT
Sometimes the old tune, “Far Away Places with Strange Sounding Names,” plays in my mind when searching for my story’s setting. The South of France brings to mind fragrant sea breezes, delicious food, and forbidden romance. The writer Somerset Maugham said of the French Riviera that it was “a sunny place for shady people.” What better setting for my first book, The Riviera Contract, an espionage novel where one can die in colorful surroundings? My second novel is set in beautiful, exciting Africa. The times I visited that fascinating continent I always had an overhanging apprehension not of falling victim to a terrorist or thug, but to the local fauna. Leopards are known to sit on roofs at night waiting for someone to walk out the door. They then pounce on the person and drag their bodies up onto a tree limb to age before dining. The black mamba will size you up while deciding when to strike and then if you run will chase you across the bush until you’re out of breathe. Now there’s a backdrop for your protagonist while he or she is trying to deal with the bad guys.
My latest novel, The Yemen Contract, takes place in the mysterious, largely unknown country of Yemen on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. There amongst the rugged beauty of an ancient land nearly every man carries an AK-47. The surroundings definitely keep my protagonist, Hayden Stone, on his toes while he tries to save Western Civilization.
I recall flying into Sana’a airport back in 1999. The airport handled both commercial and military aircraft. Parked off the runway sat vintage Russian MIG-15 fighters, droopy-winged four engine Ilyushin transports, and derelict helicopters lined up in rows more for a toothless show than ready combat. Taking a deep breath I could taste the dust.
The drive to the capitol, Sana’a, takes a little less than an hour on a good day, one without traffic jams or police checks. I never enjoy the ride from the airport: it doesn’t pass my romanticized image of Yemen. Garages, machine shops, and ramshackle eateries line the tarred road littered with trash. Some of the buildings had been interesting to look at years ago, but now had fallen into a form of suburban decay. Dust and diesel oil hang in the air.
My hotel, the Taj Sheba, in downtown Sana’a never seems to change and is the reason I stay there and not at other hotels that Westerners frequent.
The city always looks busy, not too loud, and from the front stairs of the hotel you look out and beautiful buildings surround you. A calm, tawny setting brushed by dusty, wood burning smells. Along the street women pass by fully covered in black robes accompanied by men in tribal attire, their ornate daggers, the jambiya, tucked in their belts, many have AK-47 Kalashnikovs slung across their backs. This is the Sana’a I know.
That night after an unremarkable dinner, an occasion during a previous trip came to mind and prompted me to leave the hotel. I walked along the busy street, turned into a narrow dark lane toward the old city, and passed a souk dealing in vegetables and fruit. At the open square I had visited years before, I stopped.
Before me I viewed a moving magical, fantasy world. Dim light bulbs, candles, and propane lamps hanging from carts and trailers revealed in a soft glow Yemenis standing and sitting around their makeshift stands that displayed their wares. The voices and calls were not harsh, but at once earnest, happy, and argumentative. The locals ignored me and left me in peace to take in the scene.
The angular multilevel buildings surrounding the square reflected the yellow glow from market lights. The structures twinkled colors from stained glass windows, some which were large, many small and all in various round and oblong shapes. They were haphazardly positioned on the building facades.
I looked up at the sky and saw the sharp cold stars. The last time there I remembered my colleague, Richard, say softly, “This is the closest you’ll ever get to the Arabian Nights.”
Due to the present war and turmoil the country is off limits to travelers. I hope my novel, The Yemen Contract, can provide a look into this forbidden world.
For me a book’s setting is very important, a character itself, that not only serves as background tapestry but something for my characters to take into consideration as they travel through the story.
Arthur Kerns spent most of his FBI career in the New York City and Washington, DC. Following graduation from college, he did a stint with the US Navy amphibious forces, and then joined the FBI with a career in counterintelligence and counterterrorism. Retiring from the FBI, he became a consultant for the Director of Central Intelligence and the Department of State. His lengthy assignments took him to over sixty-five countries. He attended Archmere Academy in Claymont, Delaware, earned a degree in International Relations from St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia, and received an MBA from New York University. He spent a year studying Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. A past president of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, he tries to spend as much time as possible in the Monterey California Bay area. His award-winning short stories have been published in a number of anthologies, most recently, SoWest: Desert Justice.
Diversion Books published his debut novel, an espionage thriller, The Riviera Contract, in March 2013 and the sequel, The African Contract, May 2014. The Yemen Contract, the third in the series, hits stores today.