For my money, the late 1970s to early 80s were the heyday of popular assassin-fiction. That era gave us classics like Shibumi by Trevanian, The Matarese Circle and The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum, The Ninja by Eric Van Lustbader and The Brotherhood of the Rose by David Morrell. I recently discovered another author who wrote popular thrillers in that era who is less well-known today, but still worth reading: William Diehl. His novel from 1981, Chameleon, is right in the sweet spot of fast-paced, sprawling thrillers of the period, featuring stylish assassins, international terrorism, political intrigue, vast conspiracies and intense shadow warfare.
The novel’s plot revolves around an intriguing concept: an anonymous, shadowy black ops bureau that employs freelance operatives from around the world, communicates via coded phone calls, and pays agents via cash deposits in bank accounts of their choosing. The agency, known as “the Service”, takes contracts from corporate interests who have problems they need solved quickly, professionally and without a paper trail. The leader of the Service is a mysterious figure called “Chameleon” that no intelligence agency can identify; figuring out who Chameleon is and what his organization is up to is what this story is about in a nutshell.
The book’s protagonist is ex-CIA agent turned journalist Frank O’Hara, who lives in hiding in Japan after exposing his CIA boss’s corruption. Now O’Hara, along with a very spunky and sexy reporter named Eliza, are on the scent of a huge scoop implicating his ex-boss, involving a mysterious mastermind called Chameleon, an oil consortium, wartime Japanese intrigue, international assassins and a secret order of martial arts mystics call higaru-dashi. All of this turns into a somewhat convoluted story that takes detours into Venezuela, Jamaica, Haiti and elsewhere before climaxing in Japan. Along the way we encounter several rather improbable characters, including a wise-cracking hacker-slacker called the Magician who, using an ultra cutting-edge device called a “personal computer”, has managed to gain access to most of the Western world’s intelligence databases; a paranoid, obsessive oil expert who keeps priceless industry secrets in a coded personal journal; a mad Bulgarian assassin now living in a Haitian asylum run by Catholic monks; a bear who drinks beer at a bar; and a tattooed cross-dresser with almost superhuman skill at martial arts.
Overall, I found this an entertaining but not stellar read. The opening chapters were very promising, with their detailed accounts of several Service black operations; the coded phone calls and other machinations of the agents were well done. But as the story developed, Diehl started to lose the plot and spend too much time on threads and characters I didn’t find very believable or compelling. The story did finish on a high note, with an assault on the Big Bad’s mountain lair and a final plot twist that would have been right at home in an Ian Fleming or Jack Higgins novel.
It really seems like Diehl was trying to capitalize on the success of Van Lustbader’s best-selling The Ninja from the previous year. This novel has many similar plot elements: the Japanese post-War intrigue and corruption, the American-Japanese cultural hybrid protagonist who belongs to an order of mystic super-martial artists, the old family feud, the wise Sensei, the terrifying Eastern assassin, the violence and the explicit sex. If you liked Van Lustbader’s novel, or the novels of Ludlum and Trevanian from that era, you will probably enjoy Chameleon. It’s not a classic or a particularly believable example of assassin-fiction, but it’s a fun read for fans of the genre.
Get a copy of Chameleon here.