Scouting the Dungeness River

Scouting the Dungeness River

The Dungeness River near my home.

I live near the Dungeness River; it cuts right through the town of Sequim, but it’s mostly wild on both sides with few access points until it joins the Strait of Juan De Fuca several miles to the north. I was curious to see what this stretch looked like, and I also wanted to investigate the possibility of using it as a bug-out route from my house. Since I can walk to the river in ten minutes, inflate a raft and float down it where no one is likely to be looking for me, it seemed like a potentially excellent shadow route in an exfiltration scenario. If I could float the approximately six miles to Dungeness Bay, I could then take a hypothetical small boat stashed there or contact a friend with a boat and sail across the Strait to a discreet location on the southern Vancouver coast. From there I could be picked up by a Canadian contact or simply stay in Canada as a lone fugitive for as long as I needed to. Anyway that was the scenario, but first I needed to scout the feasibility of the river exfil.

I put my little two man Intex Seahawk 2 inflatable boat in a backpack, along with the manual pump and a paddle (I considered taking my Intex Challenger inflatable kayak, which is a much better boat, but it’s bulkier to carry and I didn’t want to worry about dragging the skeg on the rocks of the shallow river so I took the raft):

I also packed a few supplies — machete, water, filter, snacks, cell phone, etc. — in a small dry bag and put it in the backpack. Ready to go, I jumped my back fence and made the short walk through the woods to the river. Finding a good spot on the bank, I inflated the raft, assembled the paddle and cinched up the dry bag tight inside the backpack. I didn’t bother bringing any paracord to tie the pack to the raft, and for some reason I didn’t think of wearing the pack on my shoulders with the waist belt fastened so it would be secure to my body. Instead I just threw the pack in the back of the raft thinking I would use it as a back rest. This laziness and inexperience with river rafting would really cost me.

I pushed off into the shallow, fast-flowing river, trying to use the flimsy paddle to guide me. I quickly realized that the current was deceptively strong and I had almost no control over the little raft. It didn’t help that the raft has no skeg, so I would frequently spin around and find myself going sideways or backwards downstream. I flailed around with my paddle, hands and legs trying not to crash into the logs near the banks which could potentially puncture the raft or damage a body part. When I came to a large fallen tree across the river I managed to get to a bank, drag the boat and pack over the log and continue. Soon after that I hit a particularly fast, deep section of water and found myself sucked toward a pile logs. The next thing I knew, the raft had capsized and I was completely underwater. I desperately grabbed the raft and managed to crawl back onto it. To my dismay, I saw my backpack, paddle and hat all floating downstream. Realizing that my only hope to retrieve the pack with the expensive smartphone and other supplies inside was to chase after it in the raft, I set off in pursuit.

I continued my roller coaster ride, bouncing off logs and spinning my way down the river. Once or twice I found myself floating in the water and had to use the raft as a flotation device until I could crawl back on it. I was able to slow and control the boat somewhat by dragging a stick against the river bottom as the boat floated sideways. I had to get to the bank several times to bypass some particularly hairy sections of the river, while looking around hoping I’d find the pack snagged on some logs.

After a little while of this I saw the railroad trestle over the river where the Olympic Discovery Trail crosses and there’s a public access area. Realizing that the pack was lost–probably far down river or sunk to the bottom–and that I had no water or means of communication, which meant continuing down river would make getting back home that much harder, I decided to abort the mission. The only problem was I was on the left side of the river and needed to get to the right bank. I barely managed to ford the waist high water, pulling the raft behind me without getting knocked over or losing the raft. I stashed the raft in some bushes and road-walked a few miles back to my house in the midday sun and soaked clothing.

It was a fun little adventure and I did get some useful information, even if it turned out to be an expensive lesson. I still think this route is doable, but I will need better equipment next time. Here are my take-aways from this mission:

  • Don’t underestimate the power of river water, particularly in the spring.
  • Use a hard-shell or inflatable whitewater kayak, not a cheap inflatable raft, on a fast river.
  • Attach your pack to the raft or wear it on your body.
  • Carry your phone on your body in a waterproof bag — something like this.
  • Wear a hat with a strap on it.
  • Install a tracking app on your phone if you are worried about losing it. These can tell you its current or last known location from the built-in GPS chip. Of course these apps allow others to track you, so I don’t recommend it.
The Great Train Hijack

The Great Train Hijack


I had little information to go on when I picked up The Great Train Hijack (originally titled The Gravy Train), published in 1971 by Whit Masterson. All I knew was that it featured a prison break, a train hijacking and a heist, and that sounded good enough for me to give it a read.

The novel’s antagonist is Anthony Heaston, the brilliant ex-leader of a Special Forces unit called “Heaston’s Hellions” that raised a lot of hell in the early days of the Vietnam War. Once a promising young colonel, Heaston was blamed for the murder of a South Vietnamese leader and relegated to a Pentagon basement, his career ruined. Bitter at the president and the military establishment for not backing him up, Heaston resigned and turned to outlaw mercenary work around the globe. But eventually he was captured leading revolutionaries in Columbia and sentenced to prison for life.

As the novel opens, Heaston pulls off a clever escape from the Columbian prison using a bold deception and outside help from some of his men. Soon he’s back in the USA, and ex-president and Heaston nemesis Carson wants to know where he is and what he’s up to. Carson puts Jake Duffy, a brilliant young agent for the FBI’s Special Assignment Division on the job. Duffy is a hip, long-haired, rebellious new type of G-man–very much like an FBI version of CIA man Ronald Malcolm from Six Days of the Condor.

Duffy tracks Heaston to a ranch in southern California, where he and some of his old Hellions are training to hijack a train using an old coal-powered model that was previously part of a Western movie production. Duffy, ever the bold and creative agent, gets himself into the ranch using a cover as a representative of a movie production company interested in making a film on the property. He meets Heaston, with whom he has a surprising rapport, as well as his brutal henchman Branko, with whom he shares a girlfriend. He also uncovers the group’s connections to a shadowy billionaire who is apparently funding them, and learns about a priceless art collection being shipped across the country. He also meets a beautiful but rather icy art museum director and Women’s Libber named Leslie, and they strike up a hip early ’70s relationship. Meanwhile Heaston and his men get wise to Duffy’s deception and make moves of their own to deceive him.

Following some clever investigative work where Duffy oversteps his authority to learn more about the heisters’ plans and some minor romance between Duffy and two of the female characters, the novel rolls to its climax aboard trains in the desert Southwest. There’s a surprise twist toward the end as Duffy realizes what Heaston’s crew are really after, and his entire operation to entrap them falls apart. Duffy, acting independently of the Bureau, decides to make a desperate last-minute gambit to try to resolve the situation that could cost him his career and his life.

I was expecting a story centered on Heaston and his heist crew, like a Parker or Drake novel, but as it turns out it’s more of a detective story about Duffy’s efforts to figure out what Heaston’s crew is up to and stop them. This isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just not the type of novel I prefer, being inclined toward the point of view of the shadow operators more than the lawmen. I would have liked this novel a lot if “Mad Anthony” Heaston had been the focus of the narrative rather than Duffy, because for me he was a much more compelling character. My other criticism is that there wasn’t a lot of action or intensity. Duffy carries out his investigation a little too flippantly; there’s never a sense of real physical danger, and the violent crew does little actual violence. While this is a well-told tale with an intriguing plot, Masterson doesn’t have the Jack Higgins flair for suspense and action that could have turned this detective story into a real thriller. If you like trains, heists and crime procedurals you’ll probably enjoy it, but otherwise it’s not that exceptional and I can see why this novel is now obscure.

Get a copy of The Great Train Hijack here.

The Domino Principle

The Domino Principle

The Domino Principle, published in 1975 by Adam Kennedy, is another semi-forgotten classic from the golden age of paranoid thrillers. Like The Parallax View, Six Days of the Condor, The Killer Elite, Telefon, and Flashpoint, it was made into Hollywood movie–this one starring Gene Hackman, which I haven’t seen but am told wasn’t particularly good. Like Parallax and Pay Any Price, Domino imagines a world where shadowy agencies recruit patsies from among the general population to carry out assassinations, while keeping them in the dark about the nature of their work.

As the novel opens, Roy Tucker, the underprivileged son of generations of manual laborers, is in the early stages of a twenty year murder rap. He has stopped writing his devoted wife and resigned himself to spending his best years behind bars. Things look hopeless when one day a well-dressed, high-powered man named Tagge shows up at the prison and offers to get Roy released and re-unite him with his wife. All Roy has to do in return is whatever Tagge tells him to once he’s on the outside. Tagge just has a few questions for Roy, re: his murder rap (Roy was framed by a jealous employer), his contacts on the outside (a lawyer and a doctor), the status of his family (all deceased except a sister) and his wife Thelma (no longer in contact), and his military service in Vietnam (excellent discipline record, combat record and skill as a marksmen). Otherwise, Roy is kept in the dark about what Tagge expects from him. Desperate to get out of prison and figuring he has nothing to lose, Roy accepts blindly.

Roy is let out of the prison as planned, but a violent twist soon lets him know that Tagge’s crew are utterly ruthless and not to be crossed. Holed up in Chicago, Roy is given cash, new clothes and a new identity. Though he’s a fugitive, there’s no sign that the authorities are on his trail. His lawyer and doctor want nothing to do with him and can’t help him, and his wife is out of reach. Roy may be out of prison, but he’s totally alone and at Tagge’s mercy.

Roy is soon jetted off to a luxurious Central American villa for some post-prison R&R with Thelma. He’s briefly tested to make sure his shooting skills are up to snuff, then his actual mission starts to come into focus. Not too keen on his assignment and realizing that he has traded one prison sentence for another, Roy attempts to escape the clutches of Tagge’s men. I don’t want to reveal too much about the story, so I’ll keep this review short. Let’s just say that it races to a dark and dramatic climax in the best noir tradition.

This is not the typical men’s adventure or spy story featuring a superman protagonist who saves the world and gets the girl. This is all about one poor man’s struggles against the forces of control–against poverty, the military, his employer, the law, the prison system, and finally Tagge’s shadowy group. The latter are seemingly all-powerful: they control prison personnel, military men, policemen, hotel employees, airlines, customs agents and phone lines almost at will. And every attempt by Roy to escape their control only reveals more of their power. Who exactly this group is is not clear; from Roy’s everyman perspective they are simply the Man, and can do whatever they want.

Domino is fast, lean and well-written; it reminded me of a Dan Marlowe novel with its noir atmosphere, fast pace and immersive action. Kennedy puts you right in the shoes of Roy Tucker–a simple guy who never quite knows what’s going on but who, like Earl Drake, knows when to trust his gut and how to survive. This is an excellent novel that deserves to be read by all connoisseurs of assassin, noir and conspiracy thrillers. Apparently there is also a sequel called The Domino Vendetta published in the 1984, which I will definitely track down and review at my earliest convenience.

Get a copy of The Domino Principle here.

100 Megaton Kill

100 Megaton Kill

After the rather subdued, cerebral novel of my previous review, I was in the mood for some good old pulpy spy-adventure fiction, and I found just the ticket on my bookshelf: 100 Megaton Kill, by Ralph Hayes. Published in 1975, it’s the first in a series of six novels about “Check Force”: an unlikely pair of spies who team up to take down a sinister global cabal.

That this was not going to be a highly realistic novel of shadow warfare was made clear at the outset, when a bad guy, having nearly killed a secretary who surprised him while he was burgling some documents after-hours, decides that the expedient thing to do is to feed her body into a paper shredder. It’s apparently a very heavy-duty paper shredder, though he acts surprised when there’s a lot of blood and he has a little trouble with the job. And when he’s confronted a few minutes later by a co-worker, instead of killing him so there’s no witnesses, he plays it cool and claims he just saw two strangers leave the office, then proceeds to throw paper shreds over the human hamburger, wipe off his fingerprints and pretend like nothing happened. This is the kind of zany stuff that makes men’s adventure fiction from that era so much fun!

The spared witness turns out to be Alexander Chane, an ace agent and crack shooter who was already thinking about leaving the Agency due to its corrupt and war-mongering ways. When Chane’s boss tries to frame Chane for the gruesome office killing, and Chane learns that the boss is connected to a mysterious conspiracy called “Force III” that involves Russian missile bases, Chane goes on the run from the Agency until he can sort everything out. Meanwhile, a top Russian agent named Vladimir Karlov has defected from the KGB for similar reasons as Chane and is hiding out in the British embassy in Paris.

The globe-trotting action is fast and furious from here on out. Karlov is attacked in Paris, Chane in New York, and both flee to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to hide out. Realizing that they have no allies and a common enemy in Force III, the two join forces to defeat the cabal. More assassins show up, more information about the conspiracy is uncovered, and Chane even finds time for meaningless sex with two horny hotties, because it’s 1975 and it’s a men’s adventure novel, so why the hell not? The action then shifts to Russia, where the dynamic duo have to infiltrate a missile base to stop a Force III agent from launching a devastating thermonuclear ICBM attack on New York City. This was easily the highlight of the book; the way Karlov infiltrates the base and the dramatic scene at the missile silo was tense, exciting and almost believable.

We also go inside a few meetings of Force III, who, like any self-respecting evil cabal, have a massive secret complex from which they’re plotting world domination. Their base is underground in the Argentinian outback, where they’re working to unleash nuclear terror on the USA and trigger World War III. Their leader is a nasty Nazi-like character named General Streicher, whose junta has recently taken over Argentina. The Brazilian President, the Chilean Defense minister, a Greek shipping magnate and a very rich Arab are also involved. While this all sounds very cartoonish, it may have been inspired by a real conspiracy called Operation Condor that was going on in South America at the time. The novel’s climax takes place at this complex, and the ending strongly suggests that Force III is not defeated, but like SPECTRE will return to haunt the world and our protagonists again soon.

100 Megaton Kill reminds me of a Robert Ludlum story stripped down to its essentials and told in 200 pages instead of 600. In particular, it brings to mind Ludlum’s 1979 novel The Matarese Circle, with its idea of an American and a Russian intelligence officer teaming up against a third global force that is sabotaging both sides and trying to provoke world war; it also has (pre-)echoes of The Bourne Identity and The Aquitaine Progression. While I rather doubt that Ludlum read this novel, for me it shows that he was really just a puffed-up pulp/men’s adventure novelist who somehow became a mega best-seller.

Anyway, this was a fun, quick read. It’s not going to win any literary awards, but if you like Nick Carter/Mack Bolan style men’s adventures and aren’t overly concerned with realism, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy this one. It’s also apparently a collectible, judging by the price in excess of $50 on the used market (I lucked out and got it as part of a large lot at a buck a book). And note the cover, a masterpiece of 1970s men’s adventure pulp–I’ll be damned if the villain isn’t a dead ringer for Laurence Olivier/Szell from Marathon Man.

Get a copy of 100 Megaton Kill here.

Pay Any Price

Pay Any Price

Ted Allbeury was a prolific British spy novelist who, before becoming a writer, actually lived the life of a Shadow Operative as a secret agent behind enemy lines in World War II. I’d never read his work before, but when I saw the description of his 1983 novel Pay Any Price I was immediately intrigued. It deals with a fascinating front of the Shadow War that is arguably the most important of all: the war for the mind.

The novel’s premise is that Lee Harvey Oswald and other notorious assassins were actually under the hypnotic control of rogue psychiatrists working for the CIA. That might sound outlandish, but when one studies some of the historical assassins and mass shooters up to the present day, many of them do seem rather disconnected from their acts, as if they were committed by alter egos not under their control. Having read a few things about the history of CIA mind control (The Search for the Manchurian Candidate is a classic) and MKUltra, I find the premise of this novel chillingly plausible.

The book begins in the early 1960s, as we meet the psychiatrists, intelligence officers, criminals and dupes who will carry out the Kennedy assassination. Mafia leaders, incensed by the Kennedy brothers’ aggressive prosecution of their activities, and CIA men, equally incensed by JFK’s failure to back the overthrow of Castro, conspire to have the president whacked. They find the perfect patsy in Lee Harvey Oswald, an early subject of a secret CIA mind control program. Two psychiatrists have discovered how to hypnotically create multiple personalities in their subjects and program them to obey commands when code phrases are spoken (readers of classic spy thrillers will be reminded of Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate and Walter Wager’s Telefon). Meanwhile, a sexy British nightclub singer named Debbie Rawlins is recruited and programmed–her gig as a travelling entertainer for military personnel providing a convenient cover for her programmed personality’s more lethal vocation.

The narrative jumps ahead several years as the two psychiatrists, wanting to get away from the heat of Congressional investigations, media attention and public suspicion that the Kennedy assassination was a conspiracy, relocate to a house in the northern English countryside to lay low and continue their research. But when two suspicious British MI6 agents break into the house of their CIA handler they discover incriminating papers connecting the doctors to the assassination program. Being shady operators, the SIS men take full advantage of the situation by blackmailing the American psychiatrists into employing their hypnotic assassins to take out some troublesome IRA leaders in nearby Northern Ireland. So a corporal named Walker is recruited and programmed for the hits, and Debbie Rawlins is reactivated.

The story finally gets a clear protagonist when an MI6 agent named James Boyd is asked to investigate a psychiatrist’s report of a patient who is having dreams about political murders that he should have no way of knowing about.  It seems that the patient (Walker) is experiencing a mental breakdown, as memories of the hits performed under his alter ego begin to leak into his daily life via disturbing dreams. Boyd’s sleuthing uncovers some disturbing facts about both Walker and Rawlins, the psychiatrists who programmed them, their connections to the MKUltra assassination program and the IRA hits. What are CIA assassin programmers doing in the UK, and why are they having people offed for MI6?

Boyd is faced with a moral dilemma: does he go along with his superiors’ desire to bury the scandal in the interest of transatlantic spook relations, or does he seek justice for the pawns of the hypno-assassin program whose lives they ruined? The story has the sort of cynical ending that you find in a lot of British spy fiction, which you’ll never get in more popular spy fiction novels but no doubt has more resemblance to the realities of shadow warfare. Anyone imagining that shadow warfare is some kind of morality play, where there are good guys and bad guys and the former always win, is surely living in a fantasy world!

While the set up of this story is excellent, the execution was a bit off. The narrative is very disjointed in the first half; it jumps from location to location, introducing characters and plot threads that didn’t seem connected. It’s hard to maintain any narrative tension when you’re not sure who the protagonist is and you’re bouncing around every page or two, though this gets better in the second half as Boyd’s investigation becomes the focus. My other complaint is that the story lacks action and intensity; it’s a bit too political and cerebral, more John le Carré than Jack Higgins, which is not how I prefer my spy thrillers. There were a few short, intense scenes of violence and a bit of shadow operating, but not enough for my liking.

I don’t know if this is typical of Allbeury, but for now I’ll put him in the category of interesting authors who are worth reading further when I’m in the mood for less pulpy spy fiction.

Get a copy of Pay Any Price here.

Operation Fireball

Operation Fireball

Dan J. Marlowe is one of the giants of hard-boiled crime fiction; his 1962 novel, The Name of the Game is Death, is an all-time classic of the genre, as riveting as Donald Westlake’s debut Parker novel, The Hunter, published the same year. In that novel Marlowe introduced the sharpshooting heistman known by the alias “Earl Drake”, and Drake’s lover and partner in crime, a fiery six-foot redhead named Hazel.  Drake returned in a 1969 sequel called One Endless Hour, written with input from a convicted bank robber named Al Nussbaum who was impressed with Marlowe’s work. That novel tells how Drake got his face reconstructed after the hellish climax of Name of the Game–hence the series subtitle “The man with nobody’s face”.

Marlowe published a third Drake novel in 1969 called Operation Fireball, which began Drake’s transition from an independent hard-boiled criminal like Parker to a government-affiliated adventurer-spy more like the Jack Higgins protagonist Sean Dillon. As the novel opens, Drake is reuniting with Hazel, who he hasn’t seen since he got a new face early in the previous novel. There’s some drama at her ranch with some nasty local kids who are abusing Hazel’s father, but Drake punishes them rather violently and has to make a quick exit.

Back in San Diego, bored and looking for action, Drake is contacted by a criminal associate named Slater and a six foot four ex-navy Viking of a man named Karl Erikson, who tell Drake an exciting story. Apparently two million dollars sent by the U.S. government to the Batista regime in the last days before Castro’s revolution is still at large. The cash was hijacked by Cuban gangsters, and Slater, who was in on the heist, is the only man who knows where it is. Erikson is assembling a crew to go get the money and he invites Drake to be on the team. But the mission is a formidable one: to infiltrate paranoid, revolutionary Cuba, find the cash, and get off the island without getting killed or thrown into Castro’s prisons. Drake accepts, on the condition that Hazel is included on the team.

The novel builds slowly as the crew gathers in a hotel in Key West and prepares for the mission. Gear and weapons are purchased, boats are test-driven, shortwave radios are assembled and plans are made with Erikson’s military precision. Meanwhile, the lecherous Latin boat captain Chico Wilson is making aggressive overtures toward Hazel and Slater is being a reckless drunk, scheming to cross the rest of the team. But Erikson is a commanding presence and he manages to keep the motley crew in line.

In the final third of the novel the narrative finally kicks into overdrive, as Drake’s crew sails to Cuba posing as navy men aboard a U.S. destroyer, Slater finds himself in the brig, and they have to free Slater, get off the heavily guarded Guantanomo Bay base and into Cuban territory. This is where Marlowe really excels: fast, tense action, with flawed, desperate, violent men letting nothing stop them from making a big score. For me he’s right up there with Donald Westlake in this regard, and the international intrigue only adds to the excitement. Because Cuba in the 1960s was a very tense place, controlled by fanatical revolutionaries, its population highly paranoid following the failed CIA-sponsored “Bay of Pigs” invasion in 1961 and on the look-out for foreign saboteurs. Marlowe does a great job of capturing the war-time feel of the mission, as the men have to move deep behind enemy lines to Havana and the location of the hidden cash. Once there, Drake takes the lead, using his talents as a thief to break into the facility and get to the loot. There’s a tense climactic scene as they try get off the island, their radio broken and unable to signal to their boatman to be picked up. Then there’s a final twist at the end, as Drake learns who Erikson really is and he doesn’t get what he bargained for from the mission.

After a slow opening, with a little too much time devoted to the setup of the mission, this book was riveting stuff. I questioned sometimes how four Americans, particularly a six foot four Viking, could move through paranoid Cuba without more problems, but Marlowe makes it fairly believable. While not an instant classic like The Name of the Game is Death, this was a great read. If you like the Parker series and the work of Jack Higgins, you should love this. I look forward to reading further installments of the Drake series.

Get a copy of Operation Fireball here.

Circus

Circus

Alistair  MacLean is one of the greats of old-school adventure fiction and one of the best-selling authors of all time. Though most of his novels involve shadow operations of some kind, I’ve found them a bit less compelling than those of his fellow great, Jack Higgins, and haven’t read too many. I recently picked up MacLean’s 1975 novel, Circus, which combines a “mission impossible”-style op with Cold War espionage, and gave it a quick read.

The story’s protagonist is Bruno Wildermann, a superstar trapeze performer, tightrope walker and mentalist. Bruno is an immigrant to America from an undisclosed eastern European communist country where members of his family were killed by the regime. Not only can he perform seemingly superhuman feats of balance and agility on the high-wire, but he has a photographic memory. This makes him the perfect candidate for a daring CIA operation: to penetrate a top-secret laboratory in Bruno’s homeland where a scientist is developing a devastating anti-matter weapon, take “mental photographs” of the technical documents contained therein and then destroy them.

The first part of the novel sets up the operation, as we’re introduced to Bruno, some of his talented circus mates–including the strongman Kan Dahn, the knife-thrower Manuelo and the lasso-master Roebuck–and his CIA handlers, which includes the beautiful Maria, whose role is apparently to look pretty, admire Bruno and occasionally get hysterical. A couple of murders early on let us know that treacherous parties have infiltrated the circus and are on the scent of the CIA plot.

Things start to get interesting around 100 pages in, as Bruno is finally let in on the details of the mission he is being asked to undertake. He’s to infiltrate the Lubylan laboratory and prison facility where the scientist works and lives. There’s a power line stretching from a power station 300 yards away to the top of the Lubylan building, which Bruno is to walk across without getting fried by the 2000 volts of electricity. If he manages that, he then needs to get into the building without getting shot by guards or eaten by killer Doberman Pinscher guard dogs. His challenge is nicely illustrated in a two-page schematic at the beginning of the book:

“Your mission, should you choose to accept it: walk across a 2000 volt power line 9 stories up…”

As the circus sails across the Atlantic and rolls toward the target country the intrigue ramps up: spies are killed, sleeping compartments are bugged, shady characters are seen tailing Bruno and his mates, and a nasty secret police chief named Colonel Sergius learns of Bruno’s scheme and schemes to take him down. Meanwhile, Maria’s cover as Bruno’s love interest begins to get all too real–a corny romantic sub-plot that I could have done without.

Finally they get to the destination, where Bruno, who has more skills than you would expect of a trapeze artist, pulls off an absurd deception to fool Sergius and throw him off his trail. Then Bruno and his three circus mates undertake the audacious heist, each using his particular skills to climb, walk, rope, knife and muscle their way into the building. This was definitely the novel’s highlight, though the realism was a bit lacking; Bruno and his crew subdue the guards and get inside too easily to make it a really tense scene.

But all of this is just a setup for what MacLean really excels at: not Shadow Op believability, but plot twists, treachery and shock endings. Without spoiling it for you, let’s just say that there are traitors close to Bruno, surprise guests in the Lubylan building, and Bruno’s operation and he himself are not as they appear to be. It’s all a bit too much, like a murder mystery where you’re not entirely clued in and everything ends too tidily to be believable. My other criticism is that MacLean doesn’t bother giving his characters different voices and personalities; they all speak like cynical Oxford-educated Englishmen, including the Eastern European immigrant Bruno and the American CIA men.

It’s too bad, because MacLean had a clever “Mission Impossible” story idea here, the execution was just a bit lacking. This is probably why I haven’t read many of his novels and prefer Jack Higgins, though I understand that MacLean’s best work came years earlier. It wasn’t a bad novel, just very old-school and not as good as it could have been. Get a copy of Circus here.

Shadow Scouting Tips

Shadow Scouting Tips

What I call “shadow scouting” is the practice of exploring areas, locating resources, reconnoitering forces, finding routes, infiltrating territories, crossing borders, travelling stealthily and surviving in any environment. It can be a hobby, a profession, a way of life or even a spiritual path. The following are some tips for those who wish to engage in this activity.

Scout Your Home Area

Begin where you are right now. Scout every road and path within a few miles of your home. Learn all the routes into and out of the area. Take note of anything of interest, such as potential threats, security forces, places to hide, observation sites, cache sites, and useful resources. Do this regularly, noting anything new or different.

Travel Shadow Routes

Scout the “shadow routes” in your area. These are routes not frequented by vehicles, police, security or the general public. They include:

  • Forest roads: These are excellent alternative routes in many rural areas. Some are restricted to private industrial use, but this is not a problem if you travel at night or are stealthy.
  • Foot and bicycle trails: There are thousands of miles of hiking and biking trails in North America where you can travel long distances as a hiker or cyclist. Some trail systems close at night, but these are easily walked in darkness if desired.
  • Power lines: These can be good routes, but they often pass through private property and sometimes cross swamps or rivers so they can be difficult.
  • Railroad tracks: These can take you almost anywhere, and they have the added benefit that you may be able to hop on a passing train. Keep in mind that rails are private property and walk them mostly at night. And always keep an ear and eye out for oncoming trains!
  • Rivers and waterways: These can be very useful routes in some areas if you have a packraft, kayak, canoe or can acquire a boat.

If no shadow routes will take you all the way to your destination, be willing and equipped to travel cross-country between existing routes—bushwhacking, crossing deserts, cutting across private property, etc. It is possible to travel long distances in this way with little or no use of main roads.

Forest roads can take you over hills, through forests and between highways and towns very discreetly.
Be prepared to bushwhack where no shadow routes are available. It’s easier than you may think!

Navigation Notes

Off-road navigation has become rather trivial in an age of GPS devices and mapping software. Most shadow routes will show up on smartphone apps like google maps and gaigps and on handheld GPS devices. Here are some points to keep in mind:

  • Digital maps need to be pre-downloaded in areas outside cell phone coverage.
  • Using a smartphone for navigation is very convenient, but it is also a tracking device. For maximum anonymity use a handheld GPS unit.
  • Mapping apps eat up phone battery life. Bring a power bank for recharging.
  • Bring maps and a compass for backup navigation and know how to use them.
  • Develop an intuitive sense of direction and learn to navigate by the sun, stars and landmarks.

Locate Hideouts and Shelters

On scouting missions and travels, keep an eye out for abandoned houses, cabins, sheds, barns, offices, warehouses and other buildings where you can take shelter and hide in the event that you are being pursued. These could be ruins or places that aren’t currently in use. Look for secluded locations without nosy neighbors who might notice you, and for discreet places to park a car. Also look for good natural hiding places such as dense woods, ravines and caves.

Store these locations in your memory in case you need a hideout or shelter during a future mission or bug-out situation. Record them on a GPS device, map or data file if you must, but for maximum operational security I don’t advise it. I’ve found quite a few such places on my scouting missions; if I ever find myself on the run, I have a chain of potential hideouts in discreet locations where I can lay low before moving on.

Keep in mind that some of these facilities may be locked. This is where lock-picking and breaking and entering skills are very useful. I always carry some basic lockpicks and shims in my pockets for this purpose. This channel has some good information in this regard, and this site has some useful tools.

Have an Escape Plan

Have one or more escape routes planned in detail in case you ever need to make a quick exit from your home. Utilize shadow routes as much as possible, avoiding main roads. Ideally this should be a route out of the country that avoids official channels like airports and border checkpoints. I discussed training for this scenario in this post ; you should at least do the planning phase, and preferably the entire exercise.

Have a Bug-Out Bag

The Shadow Scout should always have a “bug-out bag” ready with essential gear, both for scouting missions and in case you have to make a quick exit for any reason (police, enemy action, fire, natural disaster, social unrest, etc.). It should contain enough gear to allow you to survive outdoors or on the run for a few days in any environment. Below is a list of recommended items to include in your bag.

Bug-Out Bag Contents:

  • pack (30-50 liter backpack or dry bag with straps)
  • hat (ball cap and/or beanie)
  • folding knife or leatherman
  • 25-50 feet of paracord
  • miniature flashlight or head lamp w/ extra batteries
  • firestarters (lighter, matches, flint striker)
  • compass
  • waterproof maps of your area
  • waterproof pencil & notebook (for notes & sketches)
  • medical pack: bandages, tape, antiseptic wipes, aspirin, diarrhea pills, water purification tablets
  • poncho (for rain, improvised shelters)
  • sleeping bag
  • hammock with straps and carabiners
  • bandana or neck gaiter
  • gloves
  • duct tape
  • toilet paper or baby wipes
  • lockpicks, shims and other bypass tools
  • cash
  • mobile phone (“black” or anonymous if possible)
  • energy bars and other ready to eat food
  • water bottle and filter

Test your bag from time to time by bugging out from your location for an overnight camping trip or scouting mission. See how well your equipment performs, modifying it as needed based on your experience.

Hammocks are excellent for camping discreetly almost anywhere.