Chant

Chant

In the 1980s, Asian martial arts and mysticism were a very popular motif in men’s adventure books and movies. I have entire shelves of novels from that era about lethal ninja assassins, sinister Eastern mystics and Western martial arts masters trained in the East, usually combined with a larger geopolitical narrative involving payback from World War II, the Vietnam War, or the ambitions of  modern-day Japan or China. I am a big fan of this sub-genre, so when I learned about an obscure three-book series about a Western martial arts master and shadow warrior called Chant, I decided to give the first book a read.

“Chant” is the alias of John Sinclair, an almost superhuman character who is like an ultimate 1980s action hero cross between Jason Bourne, Joe Armstrong (American Ninja) and Rambo. His backstory is a familiar one in ninja fiction: a Westerner raised in post-World War II Japan, trained in the most lethal martial arts by Japan’s greatest masters, a man so gifted that he is taken as an apprentice by Master Bai, the sinister Sensei of a sect of ninjas who harness the power of the Black Flame—the inner darkness and passion that breaks the bonds of traditional martial arts honor to produce the ultimate human killing machines. Later, Sinclair enlists in the U.S. military, where he becomes an elite commando who puts his skills to work killing Communists behind enemy lines in Southeast Asia. In the process he becomes a revered hero of the Hmong people of Laos, who are fiercely resisting the brutal Pathet Lao guerrillas. For reasons that are unclear, Sinclair is betrayed by his own commanders and attacked by CIA assassins, but he manages to kill them and escape. From that point on, Sinclair is a Jason Bourne-like fugitive from shadowy elements of the US government—a master assassin who has become expendable.

A decade and a half later, Sinclair learns that some of his beloved Hmong have immigrated to the USA, where they are being enslaved and terribly abused by a very nasty family of rich industrialists called the Baldaufs. With his strong sense of honor and loyalty to the Hmong, who saved his life during the war, Sinclair goes on the warpath to destroy the Baldaufs and free the Hmong from their tyranny. Sinclair begins hunting down and killing off the industrialists and their henchmen using his superhuman martial arts skills. He employs the clever stratagem of approaching the head of the Baldauf family in the guise of an operative of a secret US agency that wants Sinclair dead, and is willing to help Baldauf for a fee. Sinclair essentially hunts himself with Baldauf’s cooperation, while in the process gaining inside knowledge of the industrialists’ operations so he can more effectively sabotage them.

As all this is going on, Master Bai arrives on the scene, having also been hired by Baldauf to find and eliminate John Sinclair. Bai brings with him three gigantic henchmen and his beautiful granddaughter Soussan, who is as lethal as she is seductive. Chant finds himself irresistibly attracted to Soussan, despite knowing that she is probably Bai’s ultimate weapon to destroy him. Because Bai is not simply out to kill Sinclair for rejecting the Black Flame cult, but to prove its superiority by defeating Chant in an elaborate mental and martial arts contest. The whole thing gets a little ridiculous at this point, as Chant is challenged to defeat Bai’s henchmen, Soussan, and Bai himself, on the threat of his Hmong friends being killed. What follows is a series of staged combats with each henchman, interspersed with Chant’s inner confusion about whether Soussan is a sinister seductress or a sincerely changed woman who wants only to be with Chant and leave the Black Flame behind. The twist ending is violent, melodramatic, ridiculous and mystical, much like this book.

Chant is well-written pulp fiction that reminds me of an Eric van Lustbader novel of that era, at a fraction of the length and with the unnecessary subplots and pretentious writing stripped out. Which should make for a good read. And Chant is a pretty good read, if you don’t mind characters who are too over the top, too skilled, too good and too evil to take seriously. Sinclair is very impressive, but he lacks charisma and never really makes you care about him—he’s like a colder, more brutal and inhuman Mack Bolan. I mean, Mack has no compunctions about blowing away bad guys Dirty Harry-style, but Sinclair takes it to another level, gruesomely murdering people (even puppies!) in a manner usually reserved for villains. He may have a sense of honor, but he also has a streak of Master Bai’s Black Flame still burning in his soul that allows him to kill without mercy. Anyway, if you’re a sucker for this genre like me you’ll probably enjoy this book despite its flaws.

Get a copy of Chant here.

The Invisible Assassins

The Invisible Assassins

As I said in a previous review, Mack Bolan vs. ninjas is a matchup I can’t resist, so when I learned that Mack has tangled with the legendary shadow warriors on several other occasions I decided to track them down. The Executioner #53: The Invisible Assassins was Bolan’s first run-in with ninjas, published in 1983 just as the “ninja boom” was exploding.

The first thing I noticed about the book is the striking cover art by iconic Bolan artist Gil Cohenclick here for the full painting. Take a moment to savor the scene: Bolan in his trademark “blacksuit”, with throwing stars on his belt, his silenced pistol raised to blow someone away, in an elegant Japanese bathhouse with a dead ninja sprawled by the pool in the background. If that doesn’t make you want to read this book, you obviously aren’t my kind of shadow warrior!

The story opens with Bolan witnessing the murder of a Japanese-American computer wizard named Shinoda on the streets of L.A. during some kind of transaction. The killing is carried out almost instantaneously, by a shadowy figure who leaves the body without a mark on it and disappears into the night. When Bolan’s partner is then run over and killed by a cold-eyed Asian driver, Bolan vows to bring this “invisible assassin” to justice. Bolan is soon assaulted by the same figure and barely survivesshaken by the assailant’s ability to get to him without triggering his near-infallible danger instincts. But the attack does trigger Bolan’s eidetic memory, and he recognizes the attacker as Zeko Tanaga, a notorious Red Army Faction terrorist who was thought to have been killed in a terrorist training camp in Yemen. Clearly Shinoda was involved in something very big and bad if he was meeting with Tanaga, and Bolan needs to find out what it was.

Bolan follows his only leads to Tokyo, hoping to identify some faces in photos found in Shinoda’s apartment and track down Tanaga. Posing as an American security consultant, he is soon attacked by thugs with shortened little fingersyakuza. Soon after that, Bolan notices a blonde woman following two of the yakuza goons on the streets, whom he promptly saves by smashing the gangsters’ faces. The blonde turns out to be a graduate student named Sandra who is researching the secret power structures of Japan that led to their involvement in World War II. She has uncovered evidence of a conspiracy of the “Eight Jonin”a cabal of eight powerful warlords who have run Japan from the shadows for centuries and lead a fanatical organization called the “Circle of the Red Sun.”

Bolan’s own research suggests that Shinoda was involved in the development of a revolutionary bio-computing technology, which is somehow connected to notorious war-time Japanese biowarfare research and the Eight Jonin. All signs point to Red Sun Chemicals corporation, which owns a castle overlooking the sea, as the nexus of the conspiracy that killed Shinoda and involves Tanaga, the Circle and the Eighth Jonin. As he is uncovering this information, Bolan is also killing yakuza thugs, narrowly escaping underwater death, being rescued by naked pearl divers and fighting ninjas on top of a bullet train. This guy is a men’s adventure machine!

The story races to a classic Bond-style climax, as Mack and Sandra infiltrate the Big Bad’s castle grounds, which have been maintained as a kind of medieval Japanese theme park, complete with authentically garbed samurai and ninja guards ready to put real arrows, swords and lances into intruders’ vital body parts. There they encounter both the terrorist Tanaga and the Eighth Jonin himselfwho, unsurprisingly, is quite mad, bent on revenge for crimes against his ancestors, and determined to use Mack and Sandra as test subjects for his latest weapons of mass destruction. You can probably guess the rest.

This wasn’t a great read, but I found it entertaining. As a student of ninjas in popular culture, I liked how it’s like a mash-up of many popular ninja books and movies: the title and depiction of ninjutsu were clearly influenced by the first book on the subject in the West, Ninja: The Invisible Assassins by Andrew Adams; the dramatic opening murder using a mysterious killing technique and the conspiracy of powerful Japanese industrialists brings to mind Eric Van Lustbader’s seminal 1980 novel The Ninja; the pursuit of ninjas on the bullet train foreshadowed a scene in the excellent 1995 film The Hunted; the castle by the sea, the pearl divers and the mad Samurai overlord brought to mind the classic 1964 James Bond novel You Only Live Twice (and 1967 film) that introduced ninjas to the Western world. Add Mack “The Executioner” Bolan into the mix, and how can it be bad?

Get a copy of The Invisible Assassins here.

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.

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.

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.

Maxwell’s Train

Maxwell’s Train

One of the fascinating things about reading espionage and crime thrillers from several decades ago is how prescient they can be about real-world shadow war. The recently reviewed Black Heart and Quiller Solitaire are cases in point, in the way they uncannily foreshadowed aspects of the 9/11 attacks. This was the idea behind the Deparment 17 project—to study shadow-fiction for its intelligence insights—and it remains a work in progress. It’s easy to forget that before the 1990s there had never been a major terrorist attack on North American soil, and Americans were still rather innocent to the threat. The 1984 thriller Maxwell’s Train, by Christopher Hyde, is another older novel that anticipates this possibility and serves up a scary scenario that could yet prove prophetic.

The narrative begins as a heist story. Harry Maxwell, once a bright, idealistic young man with big dreams from a good family, fell in with the wrong crowd and spent 7 years trafficking drugs, only getting out when he and his partner in crime Daniel were nearly killed in a rip-off. At age 35, he finds himself working as a lowly Amtrak car cleaner, with no prospects and not much to live for. Then one day he notices a strange car attached to a train and learns that it transports freshly printed bills from the Federal Reserve—some thirty-five million dollars worth, to be exact. This is enough to get Harry excited about life again, so he assembles a crew with his buddy Daniel and two other under-achievers with nothing to lose, and they begin planning the heist of the century.

The planning stage of the heist seemed rather rushed for a job of this magnitude, but there is enough descriptive detail to keep things plausible. The plan is rather ingenious, as it entails using a coffin to bring one of the men and supplies onto the train and to offload the loot, and the gassing of the security guards in the money car through a ventilation shaft. I don’t want to spoil things for you, but let’s just say the thieves get quite a shock when they force open the car door and see what’s inside.

At this point the novel transitions to the main plot: a hijacking by seven of the nastiest international terrorists in the business—veterans of the European Baader-Meinhof group, Libyan special forces and the Japanese Red Army Faction, among others. The leader of the crew, and the most lethal of them all, is the beautiful blonde German, Annalise Shenker. In addition to the huge cash haul, the train is carrying five international VIPs and is rigged with enough weapons of mass destruction to ensure that no one does anything rash.

About halfway through the story shifts gears again, as we are introduced to several new characters, including an elderly German World War II veteran visiting the country where he was kept as a POW, an old heiress who spends her time travelling North America by rail, and a spunky 15 year old runaway, all of whom are boarding an ill-fated train for Montreal. This is where I started to roll my eyes a bit, as it started to feel like one of those corny old “Poseidon Adventure”  disaster movies where we are introduced to a variety of quirky characters before catastrophe brings them together. But it actually turned out to be very entertaining, as the heist team and a motley crew of clever amateurs devise tactics, improvise weapons and muster up the courage to fight the terrorists. The last 50 or 60 pages were particularly riveting, as the protagonists make their move against the terrorists, the terrorists make their move against the passengers and threaten to unleash mass terror, government forces make their move against both, and the train rolls toward a hellish climax in the remote northern Canadian wilderness.

I was very impressed by Christopher Hyde’s smooth story-telling and technical knowledge; he knows the layouts of trains, the workings of the rail system and Canadian geography in intricate detail, and makes them integral to the story. By novel’s end I felt like I’d ridden along with the passengers on their terrifying adventure and was totally absorbed. I also liked how the heroes of this story weren’t some all-powerful government agents, but ordinary people who realized that no one was going to save them and decided to take matters into their own hands—a good reminder in this age of learned helplessness and creeping totalitarianism. All in all, an outstanding thriller, up there with the best in the genre. This was my first book by Mr. Hyde, but it definitely won’t be the last.

Get a copy of Maxwell’s Train here.

The Violent Enemy

The Violent Enemy

Whenever I’m in the mood for a quick, entertaining men’s adventure story involving shadow warfare, my go-to author is Jack Higgins; he never disappoints. The Violent Enemy, published in 1966 (originally titled A Candle for the Dead), is no exception. Featuring two of my favorite plot elements–a prison break and a heist–and a backstory about the Irish Republican Army, the novel sounded right up my alley.

Protagonist Sean Rogan is similar to several other Higgins protagonists (most notably Liam Devlin of The Eagle Has Landed): an ultra-tough, dangerous Irish shadow warrior who led special operations in World War II and the guerrilla war against British rule in Ireland. He has spent twelve of the last twenty years in prison, and is now doing hard labor in a maximum security prison in England.

Rogan is denied early release as the novel begins, which sets up a plot element that Higgins used in several other early novels (Hell is Too Crowded, Dark Side of the Street, Hell is Always Today): a prison break. During his latest stay, escape artist Rogan has figured out a complicated route of the prison that involves cutting through wire cages, climbing up beams, crawling through ventilation ducts and roping down walls. But the real challenge is figuring out how to get through the desolate moors that surround the prison and find a safe haven, a clean identity and transportation away from the scene. When all of that is offered by a former top IRA man on the outside, who apparently wants Rogan out real bad but doesn’t say why, Rogan can’t refuse.

Rogan executes the jailbreak and soon finds himself back with his old IRA boss, named O’More, who has a job that calls for Rogan’s special talents. O’More wants Rogan to rob an armored car as it is delivering a large sum of cash to a train at a stop in a small village. He has assembled a crew which, as per usual in a Higgins novel, includes some rather nasty and treacherous characters and an attractive young woman who quickly becomes Rogan’s romantic interest. This leads to personal dramas and betrayals that threaten to derail the plot, but Rogan is a true alpha warrior and he asserts his authority on the unruly gang.

As Rogan and his crew are planning and executing the heist, a parallel police investigation is going on, led by a Scotland Yard detective who Rogan rescued from the Germans back in ’43. The detective doesn’t consider Rogan a real criminal, but a political prisoner, and since the troubles that landed Rogan in prison are no longer hot, let’s just say that he’s not a very motivated pursuer. The story moves quickly to a satisfying climax in the usual Higgins style, with the heisters on the run from the coppers, double-crossers on the run from both, and one or two twists along the way.

This was a fast-paced, entertaining read, with no wasted verbiage, simple but compelling characters and action that never goes over the top — all very typical of Higgins’s early work. This is basically a prison break, heist and getaway novel, much like the novel Breakout that I reviewed here. I was a little disappointed by the lack of IRA-style shadow warfare, but overall I have no complaints.

Get a copy of The Violent Enemy here.

Blood Oath

Blood Oath

Canadian author David Morrell stormed onto the adventure thriller scene in 1972 with his debut novel First Blood, which was made into a blockbuster 1982 film starring Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo. I first encountered Morrell’s work through his 1984 effort The Brotherhood of the Rose–a riveting, action-packed Ludlumesque espionage adventure about twin assassins who are hunted by their former bosses in classic Jason Bourne fashion. I’ve read a few later novels by Morrell over the years, and while they were good, they never reached the heights of Brotherhood. I decided to try his 1982 offering, Blood Oath, to see if his earlier work was similar.

Blood Oath was the first example of what would become almost a formula for Morrell: an innocent couple find themselves caught up in a sinister conspiracy, hunted by assassins while travelling across countries trying to unmask their enemy and defeat them. His style owes much to mega-selling author Robert Ludlum: he loves the surprise attack (assassins burst through a window, a building suddenly explodes, etc.), melodramatic dialogue, outlandish twists and the “man on the run from an all-powerful, unknown enemy” plot device. Morrell’s writing is very cinematic; I suspect that he was heavily influenced by Hitchcock and always had movie deals in mind.

The novel starts slowly, as writer Peter Houston and his wife are visiting a military cemetery in France, trying to locate the grave of his father, a soldier who was killed in action in 1944. Finding no grave and no record of his father, he inquires in the local village and discovers that the man who volunteered to tend his father’s grave was a notorious traitor who assisted the Germans then disappeared at war’s end. The present-day intrigue begins soon after, as Houston’s car is run off the road by unknown assailants and his wife drowns in a river. Swearing to avenge his wife and determined to find out who is after him and why, Houston continues his investigation with a French translator named Simone, who also has a personal connection to the mystery. They quickly find themselves caught up in more intrigue and targeted by unknown assassins. Further investigation uncovers more American soldiers whose graves mysteriously disappeared, all connected to the same French traitor and mysterious entities known only as “Verlaine” and “Charon”. More people are killed, mysterious characters give ominous warnings with their dying words, and the plot twists and thickens.

The first two-thirds of this novel were pretty engaging; a 37 year-old wartime mystery, an increasingly ominous conspiracy, and two innocents trying to survive on the run while discovering the true nature of their adversary and taking revenge kept the pages turning. But things get increasingly implausible as the story goes on, and novelist Houston transforms into a full-on ninja, killing men with his bare hands, rappelling down cliffs and scaling castle walls with a monomaniacal determination to defeat the evil organization that killed his wife. The action is non-stop for the last fifty or sixty pages, as Houston and Simone infiltrate the enemy compound and learn the sinister secrets of the entity code-named “Charon”. The bad guys prove to be as cartoonish as James Bond villains, but with less charm or style, and the whole thing becomes a little absurd.

If this was a James Bond or Mack Bolan novel this would all be par for the course. But when the story starts out as a Hitchcockian mystery-thriller, then a protagonist whose knowledge of commando skills come from researching his novels suddenly starts applying it in a manner that would make Mack proud, it all becomes too much to swallow. Which is too bad, because this was an entertaining page-turner for most of the way.

One interesting detail about this novel is how it was inspired by the author’s own life. Apparently Morrell’s father was a pilot shot down over France during the war, and his body was never recovered. So this book is a kind of “what if?” story and a tribute to the father he never knew.

Overall, this was about on par with other Morrell’s other novels I’ve read, but definitely not as good as The Brotherhood of the Rose. If you like his work or the thrillers of Robert Ludlum and Jack Higgins, you’ll probably enjoy this one.

Get a copy of Blood Oath here.

Flashpoint

Flashpoint

Flashpoint is yet another obscure thriller from the 1970s remembered only because it was made into a film–a 1984 adaptation starring Kris Kristoffersen which, I vaguely recall, was quite good.

This novel is intriguing in the way it connects two fronts of the Shadow War that are usually distinct: the Border War and the Assassin War. The protagonists, Logan and Ernie, are two good ol’ boy Texas border patrolmen who enjoy nothing better than patrolling the very desolate “section 7” of the U.S.-Mexico border in their jeeps, tracking down illegals across the desert and taking them back to Mexico. They don’t do this out of any spite toward the illegals, but simply for the challenge, solitude and outdoor adventure the job affords them. Both men are military veterans with experience operating in dangerous territory–Ernie in Korea and Logan as a Green Beret in ‘Nam–and patrolling the Mexican border is a good peacetime use of their skills. Author La Fountaine does a good job of fleshing out their backgrounds and motivating their behavior; while they may be obnoxious “bubbas” at times who like to get drunk and visit Mexican whorehouses in their spare time, they are full of life and love adventure in a way you can’t help but respect.

As the story opens, the patrolmen learn that a new high tech border security system is going to be implemented in their region, which would turn these border cowboys into glorified desk jockeys, watching for beeping lights on computer screens instead of riding out under the sun looking for “Indians” to apprehend. This puts them in a depressed and desperate state of mind, but that soon changes when Logan, taking a shortcut through an untravelled desert wash, discovers a crashed jeep buried deep in the sand. Digging it out, he finds a skeleton and a box full of cash–$850,000 in small, sequentially numbered bills. At this point the novel becomes a detective story, as Logan and Ernie try to discover the identity of the driver, the source of the cash, and whether it is safe to spend it without alerting authorities.

Things soon become even more confusing–and deadly–as shadowy forces and corrupt players converge on the patrolmen’s turf. People connected to the cash are being killed off, and the patrolmen feel the noose tightening around them. Should they take the money and run for the border, or play it cool and deny everything? Who exactly is looking for the money, and why? Who can they trust? What was a jeep doing loaded with cash in the south Texas desert, who was the mysterious driver, and why is someone willing to kill anyone who knows anything about them? Everything is answered in the final pages, as the narrative gets increasingly dark, violent and desperate and a sinister conspiracy is revealed. While some of the plot developments seemed a little far-fetched, I think the shock ending was appropriate and should come as no surprise to veteran Shadow Warriors.

Flashpoint is one of those cynical, paranoid, pessimistic stories that could only have been written in the 1970s–a period I love because I think it dealt more realistically with the nature of society and humanity than what came before or after. It was a unique era, in the wake of the 1960s, when Americans were free to be simultaneously politically incorrect, sexually liberated, and very cynical of the powers that be. Logan expresses the spirit of the times well when, after Ernie denies that the JFK assassination was a conspiracy, responds:

“Ernie,” Logan cried in anger, “how can you say that after all the shit that’s come out about Watergate and the CIA and the FBI and the assassination plots over the world? How can you still say that?”

Everything that happens subsequently in the story only vindicates Logan’s cynicism. If you enjoy novels like Six Days of the Condor and films like Parallax View, where ordinary people are caught up in the machinations of sinister forces that go right to the top of the power structure–which is revealed to be hopelessly corrupt–you should add Flashpoint to your reading list. This book is a good reminder that the Shadow War is not just a war on the ground between spies, criminals and covert operators, but a war of the mind against the vast apparatus of lies and illusions that daytime society runs on.

While I wouldn’t call La Fountaine a great writer, and some of the plot twists were a little implausible, overall he’s spun a very compelling tale here that kept me turning the pages until the end. If you like good old adventure thrillers with a heavy dose of 1970s paranoia and political intrigue, you should enjoy this as much as I did.

Get a copy of Flashpoint here.