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.

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.

Designated Hitter

Designated Hitter

After reading and enjoying Telefon by Walter Wager, I decided to try another of his thrillers; Designated Hitter, a novel about a rogue CIA assassin published in 1982, sounded right up my alley.

Charlie Dunn was the CIA’s deadliest assassin for two decades, but his work finally shattered his nerves and forced him into reclusion and retirement. Following an attempt on his life at his secret Vermont cabin, Dunn learns that a former protege named Spalding has gone rogue as is now the world’s deadliest hired killer. The Agency believes Spalding is trying to take out Dunn before Dunn takes him out, while planning a high profile hit on an international VIP. There is also reason to believe that a mole is active in the Agency, working for the KGB and assisting Spalding. Fortunately Dunn, who has made a miraculous recovery and regained his nerve, is once again ready for action—this time as an independent counter-assassin rather than a government hitman, hunting a man who knows all his tricks.

It’s a nice story setup, with echoes of assassin-fiction classics The Day of the Jackal and The Bourne Identity, but I’m afraid the execution left something to be desired. While I enjoyed reading about Dunn’s paranoid antics as a shadow operative, his penchant for changing plans and doing the unexpected to throw pursuers off his trail, and his clever tactics to identify and outsmart his enemies, there is one basic flaw with this book: the narrative is totally implausible. Dunn is essentially a psychic, able to somehow intuit exactly where and how Spalding will strike next with only the flimsiest evidence, which moves the plot along efficiently, but is about as realistic as a TV spy drama.

As an example of bad plotting, early in the story Dunn makes the acquaintance of an attractive young blonde veterinarian, who is injected into the story for no plausible reason other than to give the protagonist a love interest to exchange witty banter and sex with (much like the couple in Telefon). She apparently has a childhood connection to an African leader who is a suspected target of the enemy assassin, having grown up there as a missionary and become an honorary member of his tribe, but this whole storyline is absurd and goes nowhere. The rest of the story isn’t much more plausible, nor is the action particularly gripping, even as it rushes to a climax with Dunn racing to stop Spalding from obliterating the VIP (whose identity Dunn has psychically intuited) while uncovering the mole.

It’s too bad, because at times Dunn is the sort of ultra-competent, -clever and -lethal shadow operator that makes the Parker, Quiller, Jason Bourne and Jack Higgins novels such compelling reads. And the villain Spalding is a classic evil assassin: a psychopath, sexual freak and master of disguise very reminiscent of the Englishman in The Day of the Jackal and Carlos the Jackal in the Bourne trilogy. Judging by the novel’s ending, it seems likely that Wager wanted to make Dunn a recurring character like Bourne; presumably lack of reader enthusiasm nixed that plan. If Wager had tightened up the plot, made the narrative less breezy, more intense and hard-hitting, this could have been a top-notch thriller instead of a glorified made-for-tv movie screenplay. It was still a mildly entertaining read, but nothing to go out of your way for.

Get a copy of Designated Hitter here.

Black Heart

Black Heart

Eric Van Lustbader stormed onto the bestseller charts in 1980 with the publication of The Ninja, a dark, sophisticated, pulpy thriller that perfectly anticipated the obsession with ninjas and all things Japanese in the 1980s. With that novel, Van Lustbader established the elements of a formula that he would cash in on for many years: a Western protagonist schooled in Eastern martial arts, a sinister super-assassin from the East, a global conspiracy rooted in historical events spanning East and West, Eastern mysticism and mythology, martial arts violence, explicit sex, dark psychology, intense romance, and a melodramatic writing style that tries to elevate all of this to high literature. I have to admit, I’m a sucker for this formula.

Van Lustbader’s second novel in this vein, Black Heart, published in 1983, is perhaps his  most ambitious. It’s a very long (700 pages), complex narrative with numerous threads and characters that span Cambodia in the early 1960s to the USA in the early 1980s, by way of the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. It begins with the assassination of the governor of New York during the throes of sexual passion by a mystic assassin named Khieu. It so happens that the close friend and political advisor of the victim is a man named Tracy Richter, an ex-Special Forces soldier and ex-member of a clandestine outfit called “the foundation”. When Richter is informed that the foundation suspects the governor didn’t die of a heart attack but was in fact assassinated, he takes it upon himself to solve the mystery and track down the culprit.

As the story unfolds, we learn that there’s a sinister network call the “angka” originating with U.S. Special Forces in the Cambodian jungle that by the early 1980s has infiltrated the highest corridors of power in D.C. Among the angka’s leaders are the head of  a corporation that develops advanced weapons systems, a senator who is a leading presidential candidate and hardline anti-terrorist, and the director of the CIA. These men are involved in an all-too-plausible conspiracy: secretly sponsoring terrorist attacks around the world in an effort to come to power on an aggressive anti-terrorist platform. They also have connections to Richter, the foundation, and various other players in a way that makes everything very personal.

The main character of this tale is really the assassin Khieu; in addition to his lethal present-day operations as as assassin for the angka, we get many flashbacks to his experiences in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s brutal rise to power. Van Lustbader explores how a man who began as a humble Buddhist with humanitarian ideals could turn into a murderous revolutionary and finally an almost inhuman mystical assassin. It’s an intriguing look into  the “black heart” of his antagonist—one of Van Lustbader’s biggest strengths as a writer.

By the last quarter of the book there are so many plot threads running that you almost need a spreadsheet to keep track of them—old vendettas, political agendas, terrorist plots, criminal enterprises, police investigations, romantic dramas, spiritual traumas, family honor—but they all converge toward the end in a suitably dark, violent and mystical climax.

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel for the student of shadow warfare is how Van Lustbader anticipates the “War on Terror” 20 years in advance. The senator’s plan to attack terrorists worldwide, invade Islamic countries, take their oil and ensure America’s global dominance sounds eerily similar to the program that “neoconservatives” would roll out after 9/11/2001. Black Heart offers a neocon conspiracy that will make “9/11 was an inside job” conspiracy theorists nod in understanding. As the senator muses:

His smile widened now as he thought of 31 August and Macomber’s plan. Because of that, there would be no opposition to him at all. By then America would have had its first taste of a terrorist assault on its home soil and it would mobilize.

Gottschalk rejoiced, not only for himself but for the entire country. It was just like the days before America entered World War II: it took great hardship and some loss of life for the sleeping giant to be awakened. But once aroused, Gottschalk knew, no nation on earth could stand before her. Let the terrorists beware. As of this night, their days are numbered. Attacked on its own soil, America could then send out its strike forces into the Middle East, the oil-rich nations of the Gulf, the obliteration of the known terrorist camps, the destruction of already shaky Islamic governments. Oil for the cities of America and, with it, an end to the Soviet Union’s stranglehold on much of the world.

In many ways this novel is a re-telling of The Ninja, with a Cambodia/Vietnam War backstory instead of a Japan/World War II one, the dramatic opening assassination of a VIP, the discovery by the shadow operator protagonist of foul play involving an Eastern killing technique, the detective work with a gruff New York cop to identify the assassin, the uncovering of a vast conspiracy by Western industrialists and politicians, the love interest who gets caught up in the plot, the twisted mysticism, horrific violence and extreme sexuality of the villains. Like I said, this was Van Lustbader’s formula in the 1980s—it’s ambitious, intense stuff, though at times over-written, implausible, melodramatic and pornographic. He easily could have trimmed a couple hundred pages off this novel and made it a tighter read, but in an era when Stephen King, Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy were at the top of the bestseller charts, these fat, complex thrillers were all the rage. And once in a while, if they’re well done, they’re fun to read. Black Heart is well done; it’s 1980s Van Lustbader at his most epic. If the style is to your taste, you should enjoy this novel.

Get a copy of Black Heart here.

The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew is the second book in the brilliant Matt Helm series by Donald Hamilton, published in 1960. It takes place not long after the events of Death of a Citizen, in which World War II assassin Matt Helm was reactivated after 15 years of quiet family life for a new assignment: eliminating America’s Cold War enemies. At this point Helm’s wife Beth has separated from him, taking their three children and filing for a divorce. Apparently her shock at learning that Helm was a brutal professional killer before he became a photo-journalist was too much for her to process—particularly after the horrific events of Citizen.

As the story opens, Helm arrives in Sweden on a dangerous new mission: to draw out a notorious Soviet assassin known as “Caselius” and if possible, take him out. His contact in Sweden, a young woman from another agency named Sara, objects to his mission on moral grounds, prompting Helm to get philosophical in his Shadow Warrior’s way:

Well, we’re all capable of deeds we can barely imagine. Beth’s attitude still had the power to annoy me a little, because I was quite sure she’d never have dreamed of breaking up our home if she’d merely discovered, say, that I was the bombardier who’d pushed the button over Hiroshima. I must say that I don’t get it. Why honor and respect a guy who drops a great indiscriminate bomb, and recoil in horror from a guy who shoots a small, selective bullet? Sara Lundgren had had the same attitude. She’d been perfectly willing, presumably, to collect data, as part of her job, for the use of the Strategic Air Command—that might lead to the eventual obliteration of a city or two—but she’d balked violently at the idea of feeding information to a lone man with a gun.

This difference in mindset between Daylight Warriors and Shadow Warriors is a recurring theme in the series—as is the fact that when Daylight methods fail, leaders will always look to men like Helm to do the dirty jobs in the shadows that moralists are unable or unwilling to do.

Matt and Sara are soon attacked by unknown assailants and she is shot from the trees, presumably by Caselius—providing a lethal lesson in the necessity of Shadow Warriors. The stoic Helm shrugs it off and continues with his mission, posing as a a photo-journalist to accompany an American woman named Lou who is doing a story on mines in northern Sweden. Lou’s husband, who published an expose that brought Caselius into public awareness, was gunned down in Germany, and Helm hopes to draw the assassin out through her. There is also a beautiful young Swedish girl who claims to be Helm’s distant cousin, who turns out to be the story’s most fascinating character.

In typical Helm fashion, the characters’ motives and allegiances are unclear and treachery is an ever-present danger. Also in typical fashion, he beds down or lusts after some of them and this complicates his work. There is a long stretch of intrigue, deceptions and twists along with several killings, before the identity of Caselius is finally revealed and Helm moves in for the kill. The final stretch moves fast toward the climax, as Helm tracks Caselius across the desolate moors of northern Sweden.

The thing to realize about Matt Helm books is that though they might look like just another pulp spy series to the uninitiated, they are very smart, well-written, realistic thrillers that have more in common with hard-boiled crime novels than James Bond or Nick Carter spy stories. If you’re looking for over the top action, explicit sex, cutting-edge technologies or cartoon villains, this series will probably disappoint you. Like the equally brilliant Quiller series, this is a spy series for a literate adult reader who likes realism, tight writing, wit and the occasional philosophical insight with his tough-guy action. But make no mistake: Matt Helm is as tough as they come; a stone-cold killer who won’t hesitate to carve you up with his knife, torture your wife or shoot you in the head if honor and duty require it.

I found this installment slightly less riveting than the other two Helm novels I’ve reviewed to date, Death of a Citizen and The Betrayers. The writing was just as good, but the story and setting weren’t quite as interesting. Sweden seemed like a duller setting for a hard-boiled espionage adventure compared to the American Southwest or Hawaii—at least until the final confrontation in the arctic moors. Nevertheless, this was a solid entry in a brilliant series, and well worth your time.

Get a copy of The Wrecking Crew 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.

Wilderness

Wilderness

After reading many novels about professional assassins targeting civilians, it was fun to read a thriller where the tables are turned: amateurs target a professional killer for death. That’s the plot of Wilderness, published in 1979 by mystery writer Robert B. Parker (creator of the Spenser: For Hire series).

The book hooks the reader from the first page, as protagonist Aaron Newman witnesses an execution-style murder of a woman while out jogging on the railroad tracks. He notifies the police, and learns to his horror that the killer is a well-known gangster and murderous psychopath named Adolph Karl. Karl soon lets Newman know in the strongest possible terms that he shouldn’t testify about the murder, by having his thugs tie up his wife, sexually abuse her and threaten further retaliation. Newman decides that rather than cowering in fear or allowing a killer to walk free, his only honorable option is to go on the offensive and kill Karl himself. He recruits his neighbor, a big, tough Korean War vet named Chris, and they start stalking Karl and his gang.

It was funny reading how these amateurs plan and execute their hit. Some of Newman’s tactics were ridiculous, like posing as a deaf beggar and walking right into Karl’s office to reconnoiter his defenses. Since Karl had immediately fingered Newman as the rat despite the police report being confidential, why would Newman not assume that Karl knew what he looked like? Also, targeting his entire gang seems a little ambitious for amateurs; wouldn’t they at least consider going into a witness protection program?

This is really a story about the relationship between the emotionally needy Newman and his rather cold and domineering wife, and how Newman feels the need to prove his manhood by standing up to Karl. I didn’t like either character that much, but Parker paints a believable picture of their personal drama and dysfunction. The only likeable characters were a sexually charged hitman and wife sent to take out Newman; they would have been right at home in a Quentin Tarantino film.

The novel really gets exciting about halfway through, when Newman, his wife and Chris decide to hunt down Karl and his gang while they’re on a hunting trip to a lake in the Maine wilderness. It becomes a tense tale of wilderness survival, manhunting and sudden death that was gripping all the way to the end.

Overall, I enjoyed Wilderness; it was a fast-moving, fairly believable tale of how ordinary people might become ruthless killers if put in a horrific enough situation. And that’s why I enjoy shadow-fiction so much: because it lets us imagine how we might be if we ever fully embraced our shadow selves.

Get a copy of Wilderness here.

The Killer Elite

The Killer Elite

The Killer Elite by Robert Rostand is best known for being made into a 1975 film starring James Caan and Robert Duvall — a decent movie that was very different from the novel (though it did feature one of the first appearances of ninjas in American media!).

This is another story from those cynical, paranoid 1970s, when, in the wake of the high-profile assassinations of the 1960s, Vietnam, Watergate, failed revolutions and revelations about the CIA’s nasty antics around the world, every thriller seemed to involve shadowy government or corporate entities scheming to overthrow regimes, assassinate leaders and deceive humanity (sound familiar?). The works of Robert Ludlum, James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor, and the film Parallax View are good examples of the genre; The Killer Elite adds an assassination storyline reminiscent of Frederick Forsyth’s classic The Day of the Jackal.

The novel’s protagonist, Mike Locken, is an operative for SYOPS–a secret American agency tasked with transporting and securing Soviet defectors and other VIPs who may be targets of enemy action. As the story begins, three international assassins have been identified entering England following an anonymous tip-off. Their target is a popular African leader named Nyoko living in exile in London, whom his homeland’s strongman leader wants to eliminate to defeat a popular uprising.

The premise of the novel is an intriguing one: what if a government used a “killer elite” of assassins to take care of problems instead of military forces? It was inspired by an actual proposal made by a member of the British House of commons, as related in the novel to Locken’s boss:

Tell me, Collis, have you ever heard of John Lee? … Member of Parliament here a few years back. Absolute terror on military spending. Made a brilliant speech in the Commons in sixty-nine with a radical proposal on how to cut the size of the British Army. Lee’s idea was to turn it into a small elite of political assassins. … His logic was that a small power like Britain couldn’t hope to compete militarily with the superpowers. Lee thought in this day the political assassin was more fearsome than the Bomb, hence a better tool of diplomacy. His speech made quite a splash in the dailies.

The African strongman has decided to adopt this policy, employing mercenary assassins in place of a standing military to take care of problems like Nyoko. The other major plot element driving the narrative is the fact that Locken was nearly killed during his previous assignment, by an assassin who happens to be one of the three hunting Nyoko. So Locken has an opportunity for revenge, and his new assignment becomes very personal.

After this intriguing setup, the novel becomes a chase story, as Locken has to safely escort Nyoko and his daughter out of Britain while luring the hated assassin out so he can kill him. There are twists and turns as treacheries and deceptions are discovered, and a fairly dramatic final confrontation. But just as the story climaxes, Rostand decides to give us several pages of exposition explaining exactly how the plot twists and machinations led to this point, which I found jarring and not very good story-telling. I also found several of the characters improbable, like the old man Nyoko and his city girl daughter, who suddenly turn into fierce primal warriors in the Welsh bush.

According to his bio, author Robert Rostand (real name Robert Hopkins) spent considerable time working and living abroad, which brings a worldly sophistication to his writing that elevates this novel a notch or two above the typical thriller. But it doesn’t reach the heights of other well-travelled authors like Forsyth, Trevanian or Adam Hall. The Killer Elite wasn’t a great read, but it was interesting enough that I’ll probably try the next installment of the Mike Locken series or other works by Rostand.

Get a copy of The Killer Elite here.

Chameleon

Chameleon

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.

The Murder Business

The Murder Business

The Murder Business by Peter C. Herring is an obscure thriller from 1976 with a premise so intriguing that I decided to track down a copy and read it. It’s basically a what-if  story: what if James Bond, due to psycho-sexual pathology and a tough childhood, turned to the “dark side” and become an assassin working for a SPECTRE-like cabal headquartered in the USA instead of Her Majesty’s Secret Service?

The dark side Bond in question is a handsome, dark-haired professional killer named Michael, who, like Bond, lives in a London flat, jets around the world on dangerous missions for a powerful cabal, is a smooth, stone-cold operative with a way with killing men and loving ladies alike. The cabal in question here is not MI6, but The Board–a circle of ten very powerful men who are said to secretly run the USA, and by extension, the world. The Board was apparently responsible for the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers in the 1960s, as the latter were threatening to expose and reign in their shadowy power. The Board has toned down their assassinations in the 1970s, but are still targeting politicians who threaten them with exposure–often dispatching their best operative, Michael, to do the wetwork.

The novel begins with Michael doing what he does best: sneaking up on a troublesome VIP and efficiently executing him with his trusty knife. Then we get to go inside the Board’s meetings as they plot more killings to ensure their continued world domination, followed by Michael doing another job–this one rather kinky, as it involves sex, killing and Michael’s rather orgasmic reaction to both. We also get to meet Jenny, Michael’s beautiful girlfriend who is the first person in the world that the stone-cold killing machine has ever had feelings for.

The story takes a sudden turn when the Board discovers a plot to destroy them by a rival organization seeking to unseat them as the world’s top Illuminati. Michael, with Jenny in tow, takes a vacation to the south of France to get away from the heat but soon finds himself hunted by unknown assassins. Who is trying to kill him and why? What should Michael do about Jenny, now that she knows he is involved in the murder business? The tale gets darker and more violent as more assassins show up, people are killed in gruesome ways, the Board is hit hard and the stress of it all causes a mental breakdown of not only Jenny but the normally Terminator-like Michael.

Despite the promising set-up, I’m afraid Peter Herring is no Ian Fleming. The writing is often clumsy and over-written; there’s a lot of irrelevant detail about what Michael ate, the color of the sky, etc., the characters are rather cliched, and the story lacks the flair that made Fleming’s Bond a worldwide phenomenon. This reads like a men’s adventure novel that is trying to be more literary than it needs to be, or than the author is capable of. Which is too bad, because Michael had the potential to be for the spy genre somewhat like what Parker was for the crime genre: a psychopathic protagonist who shows us what life can be like on the dark side, if you throw off the yoke of governments, laws and morals and become a freelance Shadow operative dedicated purely to the ruthless execution of your craft. But to achieve that status, Herring would have had to be a better writer; he simply doesn’t bring the writing chops or technical details that Donald Westlake did to the Parker series. Nevertheless, if you are intrigued by the premise and fascinated by dark side spy, crime and assassin fiction (what I call “shadow-fiction“), you may find The Murder Business worth your time.