Hijack

Hijack

I’m fascinated by shadow ops that involve hijackingskyjacking, train robberies, piracy, etc.—so when I ran across the 1969 novel Hijack by Lionel White I was immediately intrigued. The first thing I noticed was the striking cover: the image of a giant upraised pistol next  to the single word “HIJACK” emblazoned in red, with a jet airliner and a couple in erotic embrace in the foreground, is a minor masterpiece of paperback cover design. On the strength of the cover alone I might have bought the book; knowing that the author was Lionel White, one of the old masters of crime noir fiction known particularly for his heist stories—which have been called precursors to the brilliant Parker novels by Donald Westlake—I simply had to have it.

Does the story live up to the cover? Almost. As you can probably guess, it involves the hijacking of an airliner, sparked by the steamy encounter between a beautiful, money-hungry ex-stewardess called “Sis” and an ex-Air Force pilot recently returned from Vietnam nicknamed “Dude”. Sis has inside information that a particular route transports millions of dollars in small bills in its cargo hold every month, and she uses her considerable charms to convince Dude to help her get it. So Dude assembles a team and plans an audacious air-heist.

Along the way we learn the backstory of the hijackers, most of whom were ‘Nam buddies of the rogue pilot Dude. We also learn more about several of the  VIP passengers; it turns out (rather unrealistically) that on board the ill-fated flight are a French movie star, a top American scientist, a Russian defector, his CIA escort, the airline’s majority stockholder and a famous preacher. In standard crime noir fashion, at some point everything goes sideways, as the all-too-flawed characters turn a carefully laid plan into a clusterf*k of foul-ups, betrayals and desperation moves. There’s some brutal violence, loose sex, nasty rape and heavy drinking as the various players crack under pressure and revert to their primal instincts. The offbeat ending is slightly anti-climactic and felt a bit rushed, but it’s probably as good as any for this offbeat tale.

I’m a little surprised Hollywood never made a film out of this novel. Several of Lionel White’s earlier works were made into movies, but maybe by 1969 the 64 year-old author was no longer a hot property. Or maybe a story about skyjackers—in an era when revolutionaries, terrorists, criminals and crazies were hijacking airplanes with alarming frequency—hit too close to home. Apparently Quentin Tarantino is a big White fan; this would make a great Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction-style noir thriller. No matter, though; classic crime paperbacks like this one are an art form of their own and deserve to be read and enjoyed on their own terms. The biggest crime is that this book is so obscure and difficult to find; if you can track it down for a reasonable price (I paid $10), I would advise picking it up. Hijack is recommended for fans of classic crime noir and heist thrillers.

Modern Ninja Warfare

Modern Ninja Warfare

One of my long-time obsessions is ninjutsu—not the ahistorical variety popularized by the likes of Masaaki Hatsumi and Stephen K. Hayes since the 1960s, which turned the ninja into black-gi wearing martial arts enthusiasts who rarely leave the dojo—but the real, historical art of the ancient Japanese shadow warriors. Unfortunately, until about a decade ago, most of the available ninjutsu literature reflected the bogus version of the art popularized by the “ninja boom”, and authentic material was almost non-existent in the English language. Fortunately, thanks primarily to Antony Cummins and his translation team, all the major original ninjutsu scrolls have been translated into English so we can now learn about the legendary ninja in their own words.
Cummins’ recent publication, Modern Ninja Warfare, is an outstanding addition to this project. Cummins has created something unique: a compendium of ninja skills taken directly from the historical ninjutsu scrolls, accompanied by a discussion of their modern shadow warrior equivalents.

The book starts with a nice overview of who the ninja really were and what they did. We learn that they engaged in the full range of shadow ops, as spies, commandos, scouts, arsonists, assassins, psychological warriors and terrorists. We get a similar overview of the ninja’s modern equivalents, the special forces, spies and hackers who engage in the same types of activities. Subsequent chapters compare everything from hand-to-hand fighting techniques to commando raids, secure communications, infiltrating buildings, escape and evasion, surveillance, ambushes, cross-country movement, assassination and torture. There is an entire chapter on spycraft, which was the bread-and-butter of the historical ninja. In one section I found particularly interesting, Cummins notes that the path of the shinobi no mono (ninja) was recognized in their own scrolls as a “horrific path”:

Shinobi took part in murder, lies, deceit, scandal, disguise, propaganda, sex, slavery, the killing of innocent bystanders, robbery and all the deeds at the depths of human society. They were the dark side of the samurai “coin,” not the antithesis of the samurai themselves.

Shadow warfare has always been a dark and dirty business, and no one knew that better than the ninja!

I also appreciated the last chapter of the book, “The Way of the Mind”, which discusses the psychological and spiritual dimensions of shadow warfare. This is an area that is often neglected in the modern literature, but which the ninja of old knew was critical to success. Their very name was derived from the word “nin”, which has several connotations, including “stealth”, “perseverance” and “forbearance”. They knew how to cultivate these qualities, to exploit the mental weakness of others and to use rituals to acquire inner strength. To operate in the shadows; to endure and overcome all hardships; to control emotions and urges; to exploit weakness and use rituals—these are the mental keys to the Way of the Shadows in all ages, whether they are medieval ninja or modern spy-commandos.

Overall, I found the book quite interesting and picked up many new tricks and ideas. It was instructive to see how the principles of the shadow warrior arts haven’t changed over the centuries, though the forms have changed to incorporate new technologies and cultures. This isn’t a highly detailed military instruction manual, but an overview and primer on the full range of shadow warfare skills and tactics practiced both by the ninja and modern operatives. As such, Modern Ninja Warfare is a worthy addition to the library of any student of ninjutsu or shadow warfare.
Get a copy of the book here.
Death of a Citizen

Death of a Citizen

Death of a Citizen is the first book in the brilliant Matt Helm series by Donald Hamilton. Though categorized with James Bond and other popular spy novels of that era, this is really a classic 1950s noir crime story with a Cold War spy gloss. It has all the elements of that genre: the stylish but deadly femme fatale, the man whose dark past comes back to haunt him, dead bodies, tense chases, lethal twists, brutal betrayals and visceral violenceall told in the hard-boiled, gritty, witty style of the best crime novels of its day.

The story’s setup is a compelling one: Matt Helm, who worked as an assassin during World War II for a super-secret but unnamed government agency, finds himself reactivated 15 years later  while he is living a quiet life as a writer/photographer with his wife and three children in New Mexico. Thinking that his brutal days were long behind him, Helm’s encounter with the beautiful but lethal Tina, his ex-flame and -colleague in the assassination business, and his discovery of a dead body in his den, awaken his old killer instincts and pull him back into the deadly game of kill or be killed. Helm learns that his old agency is still operating, now targeting America’s Cold War enemies, and Helm’s unique talents are again in demand. This sets the stage for a fast-paced, exciting narrative, as Helm sets off on the open roads of the Southwest with Tina, reconnects with his old boss at the agency, and is given a new mission to eliminate the enemy agents targeting an important scientist in his area.

Hamilton does a brilliant job describing Helm’s re-awakening to the predatory instincts of a professional killerwhich had been dulled by 15 years of domesticated living but are quickly sharpened by the presence of death, sex and danger in the form of a dead girl, sexy Tina and her thuggish partner Loris. Like the best noir novels, this story is all about the dark psychological quirks of the characters, the unexpected plot twists and the moments of intense violencenot the geopolitical backdrop, technological gimmickry or comic book antics of so much spy fiction.

Death of a Citizen is a brilliant start to a series that I intend to read in its entirety. Matt Helm is a very compelling character; what Parker is to the crime genre, Helm is to spy fiction: a stoic, super-tough, no-nonsense man of action who does some nasty things but you can’t help rooting for anyway. Highly recommended.

Get a copy of this book here.

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief

I always enjoy novels and movies that feature cat burglars who stealthily climb walls, use ropes and grappling hooks, creep along catwalks, bypass alarm systems, pick locks, crack safes, etc. to steal jewels or cash and get away cleanly. But I’ve often wondered: do such people exist, or are they just an entertaining fiction? The answer is the former, if you believe William Mason’s autobiographical account of his exploits as just such a burglar.

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief recounts some of Mason’s most memorable heists and narrow escapes, his infiltration of glamorous society, and his double life as a responsible family man by day and a high stakes, high-rise sneak thief by night. I particularly enjoyed the technical details of his exploits, such as how he fashioned home-made grappling hooks by welding together large fish hooks, posed as prospective tenant to get a tour and floor plans of target buildings, carefully studied security cameras to find their blind spots, scaled walls, and the like. Mason’s standard M.O. was to get onto roofs from the inside then climb down onto balconies, taking advantage of the fact that people often didn’t bother to set their alarms or lock their doors because they never imagined that someone could get to them. He also used clever social engineering to plan his heists, reading high society newspapers and going to events they attended so he could scope out the jewels and learn more about his targets. Mason hit a number of well-known celebrities and tycoons, making off with millions of dollars worth of jewelry without the authorities having any clues.

What I find fascinating about Mason is the fact that even while he was making a comfortable upper middle class living as a real estate broker, with a wife and children in a good neighborhood, he led this dangerous second life and risked everything for the thrill of committing these crimes. Apparently the buzz and challenge of sneaking into luxury homes, outsmarting security measures and being instantly rewarded with small fortunes in jewelry was too potent a drug for Mason to give up. Once he got the taste for burglary as a young man struggling to make ends meet, it seems that he couldn’t stop until the law finally did it for him. This is a common trait we find in shadow operators, whether they are burglars, spies, hitmen or what have you: the real juice is not the money, but the excitement of living a life in the shadows, breaking the laws of daytime society and getting away with it, becoming a kind of shadowy superman who doesn’t play by the ordinary rules.

There have probably always been sneak-thiefs like Mason, targeting the fortunes of kings, nobles and merchants. It’s inspiring to know that such men can still operate in modern times, and can still profit wildly by their ingenuity, skill, daring, and exploitation of human error.  Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief is highly recommended for anyone interested in real heists and criminal shadow operators.

Get a copy of this book here.

Breakout

Breakout

Breakout is the 21st book of the “Parker” series, by Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark). If you’ve never read any Parker novels, I recommend that you start with the first one, The Hunter, and proceed from there. Few books capture the intensity and drama of criminal shadow ops as realistically as these. Parker is a professional thief, but he’s no non-violent cat burglar, stealthily infiltrating buildings, cracking safes and getting away cleanly with the loot. He threatens, pistol-whips, beats, binds, gags, and occasionally kills to complete his missions, but always with an almost robotic level of efficiency and cool.

Parker novels are what you might call “criminal procedurals”—they give detailed, realistic accounts of the planning and execution of Parker’s heists and associated criminal activity. We learn about the minutia of getaway routes, entrances and exits, guards, escape vehicles, etc. Parker prefers low-tech, direct means to assault his targets, never relying on gadgetry when good old guns, threats and surprise are so much more reliable. But as in real life, nothing ever goes according to plan; much of the fun of these stories is finding out how Parker improvises when an op goes badly wrong or someone crosses him.

Breakout offers a new twist on the Parker formula: this time he has to break out of a facility instead of in—the facility in question being a prison, where he finds himself for the first time since the series began. Parker, being a guy who doesn’t take well to involuntary confinement, and being linked to the murder of a prison guard decades ago, immediately starts angling to escape. Recruiting two other inmates and with help from outside, he makes a harrowing but highly believable escape. And that’s just part one of this tale. The crew, now free and short of cash, decides to take on a heist that one of them had previously scoped out: breaking into a former armory loaded with jewelry that is as impregnable as the prison they just got out of. The ensuing break-in is as gripping as the break-out; author Stark describes both in such photographic detail that you could swear he has done them himself! There are further escapes, evasions, murders, police procedural work, hostage-taking, and a climactic manhunt for Parker the fugitive. The ending is particularly well done.

After reading five early Parker novels from the 1960s, it’s a bit jarring to read about him operating in a 21st century world of cell phones, internet and security cameras. But as always, Parker adapts to his circumstances and relies on the tried-and-true methods of his trade, so it doesn’t really affect the narrative. Forty years after the first novel, Westlake is still the master of hard-boiled crime fiction, and Parker is still the master of hard-boiled crime. “Breakout” is a top-notch addition to the best crime series ever written. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of Breakout here.

Splinter Cell

Splinter Cell

Splinter Cell, the first in a series of novels based on the popular stealth video game, has an  intriguing premise: an ultra-secret NSA division called Third Echelon employs agents called “Splinter Cells” to infiltrate enemy installations, spy, steal, sabotage and assassinate to protect American interests.

The protagonist is Sam Fisher, a highly competent loner who has little apparent personality or life beyond his government work and his Krav Maga practice. Fisher employs an array of impressive gadgetry, including a suit that regulates body temperature, makes no sound and resists bullets, and a device called an OPSAT that did in the early 2000s what smartphones do today, but with high security, global satellite coverage and a direct line to NSA HQ. Fisher is also a master of stealth and shadow warfare—basically a 21st century ninja. He can pick any lock in seconds, scale walls and climb ropes with the best of them, evade capture, blow up buildings and take people out with his bare hands. But therein lies the problem: Fisher is a little too good, and everything comes a little too easy for him. He’s like Nick Carter—a superman spy who never seems to have a major mishap or encounter any obstacle he can’t overcome.

This first installment concerns the machinations of a SPECTRE-like cabal of arms dealers called “the Shop” that is targeting Splinter Cells for death, having already murdered two agents and set their sights on Fisher. They are also sponsoring a very nasty Islamic terrorist outfit called “the Shadows” (not to be confused with the group I’ve blogged about) that is spreading al Qaeda-style mayhem.  Fisher is sent to the Middle East to track both organizations down and destroy their operations. This involves using his stealth skills to infiltrate various offices and bases, gather incriminating information, blow up their assets and take out any bad guys who cross his path. Unfortunately, the Shop ups the ante by kidnapping his daughter, and this really motivates Fisher and puts him hot on their trail.

Author “David Michaels” is actually Raymond Benson, who was the official author of the James Bond series from 1996 to 2003. His writing is perfectly functional but not terribly inspired—he’s certainly no Ian Fleming, and Sam Fisher is no James Bond. Benson was the hired writing help here, not the series creator, and it shows. Fans of the video game or Clancy techno-thrillers who are intrigued by the premise may enjoy this book, but I found it all a bit predictable and by the numbers. Splinter Cell offers neither shadow op realism, gripping narrative, interesting characters, nor wild entertainment of the sort you find in classic men’s adventure fiction. Give it a pass unless you have nothing better to read.

Buy a copy of Splinter Cell here.

The Betrayers

The Betrayers

Matt Helm was America’s answer to James Bond: a hard-boiled, no-nonsense killer who dispensed with the goofy gadgets and “shaken not stirred” pretensions and got down to the brutal business of espionage the old-fashioned way: with his knife, gun, wits and fists. An assassin behind enemy lines during World War II, Helm was re-activated 15 years later by an unnamed, ultra-secret agency to start disposing of America’s enemies during the height of the Cold War.

The Betrayers, published in 1966, is the the tenth novel in the series, but the first one I’ve read. It concerns Helm’s vacation to Hawaii, which turns into a mission to expose and eliminate a traitorous fellow agent who is suspected of working for the Red Chinese. Along the way, he encounters two beautiful but treacherous women, the allegiances of whom are far from clear. Is beautiful blonde beach girl Jill really an ally out to expose the rogue agent called Monk, or is it an elaborate ruse? Is the sultry brunette society woman Isobel an enemy operative or an independent femme fatale? While he is trying to sort them out (and bed them down), Helm learns of Monk’s plot, which involves a transport ship full of American troops visiting Honolulu. There are some nice descriptions of the Hawaiian culture and environment, visceral violence, an intense inter-island sailboard ride, clever ruses, car chases, gun lore, wisecracks, tradecraft, and a final showdown with the Monk. But Hamilton always keeps it real; there is no supervillain in a hollow volcano, seven foot two henchman with steel teeth or nuclear bomb about to blow up a major city. I loved Fleming’s James Bond novels when I was younger, but Hamilton’s Matt Helm is Cold War spy fiction for adults.

One of the novel’s more interesting passages comes during a little rant by Monk near the end. At a time when Russians were considered the great menace to America and the free world, Monk identifies the Chinese as the real threat, in a way that some might consider prescient:

“There’s the true enemy, Eric!” he said grimly. “They’re arrogant bastards. They think they can use and outsmart anybody. They thought they could use and outsmart me. They figure civilization started with them and will end with them. And unless something’s done with them soon, they may be right.”

But there isn’t much editorializing in this novel. Donald Hamilton writes the way Matt Helm acts: no-nonsense, gritty, witty, fast-moving, direct and to the point. This was a highly enjoyable introduction to the series; I will be reading and reviewing more Helm novels in the near future. Highly recommended for fans of hard-boiled espionage action.

Buy a copy of The Betrayers here.

Flawless

Flawless

One of my favorite subjects of study is “heistology”—the history, art and science of pulling off heists. One of the best books I’ve read on the subject is Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History, by Scott Selby and Greg Campbell. It is a detailed account of the notorious Antwerp Diamond Heist conducted in 2003, one of the largest robberies in history, worth upwards of one hundred million dollars in diamonds, gold and jewelry.

This is an amazing, riveting story. The robbers, members of the so-called “Turin School” of Italian professional thieves, spent two years planning and carrying out the audacious operation, which was to loot the vault of the Antwerp Diamond Center—a super-secure vault within one of the most thief-proof square miles of real estate on the planet: the Antwerp Diamond District. The leader, a man named Leonardo Notarbartolo, rented an office within the Center, and with the assistance of his specialist team members in Italy, gradually developed workarounds for the vault’s security measures right under the guards’ noses. They were able to bypass three different alarm systems by ingenious techniques; for example, they defeated the light sensor with a telescoping painter’s pole with a styrofoam casing on one end, molded to fit perfectly over the sensor. They also benefited from sloppy security: guards who conveniently kept the vault key in a nearby storage room, and managers who failed to update some of the vault’s security systems. But the amount of skill and ingenuity displayed by this gang is rather awe-inspiring, despite one unfortunate failure to dispose of incriminating evidence.

While I’m a big fan of heist novels by the likes of Donald Westlake and Lionel White, nothing beats a true story that reads like a thriller. This was a real mission impossible, conducted with great skill, patience and daring by a modern-day “thieves guild” that shadow operators can’t help but admire. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of Flawless here.

Welcome to the Shadow War

Welcome to the Shadow War

Greetings. My nom de guerre is Shadow Scout, I am a student of shadow war, and this is my journal. My interests include: spy/crime/men’s adventure fiction, heistology, black ops, assassins, ninjas, prison breaks, scouting, survivalism, secret societies, parapolitics, occultism, mind control and dark side philosophy. In this blog I will be reviewing books of interest, reporting on some of my projects and operations, and reflecting on the world from a shadow warrior’s perspective. To kick things off, here is my review of a recent read entitled, appropriately enough, “Shadow Warrior #1”. Enjoy.

The Hong Kong Massacre (Shadow Warrior #1), by Joseph Rosenberger

At the tail-end of the ninja craze in the late 1980s, the late, great Joseph Rosenberger, author of the incomparable “Death Merchant” series, created the “Shadow Warrior” series, starring ‘Shadow Warrior’ Scott McKenna. McKenna is essentially Richard Camellion (the Death Merchant) with ninja training: killing machine, master of weapons, stealth and disguise, and mystic warrior with his own code of honor.

Like the Death Merchant novels, Rosenberger loads up the book with technical details. In this case, that means loads of Japanese terminology, ninjutsu techniques and descriptions of ninja weapons. It also means detailed and often amusing descriptions of each kill, complete with the full names of each victim and the particular anatomical deformations they suffer at the hands of the killer-protagonist. It also means references to ninjutsu hokum like kata dan-te, “Dance of the Deadly Hands”, and saimin-jutsu, “Way of the Mind Gate”, that were lifted directly from the writings of ninja LARPer and known lunatic Ashida Kim. But it’s all good fun.

Book #1 in the series, The Hong Kong Massacre, concerns the Shadow Warrior’s brutal revenge on a a Hong Kong triad gang who killed a close friend. It also recounts the origins of the Shadow Warrior, going back to the fateful day when McKenna, the trust-fund brat son of a diplomat stationed in Japan, calmly informed his parents that he was foregoing college and the Ivy League track to train as a ninja (it was the 1980s, people did things like that).

But the details of the plot are secondary. What matters is they provide a good set-up for maximum ninja mayhem and ultra-violence, sprinkled with Rosenberger’s trademark technical details, morbid mysticism, philosophy and humor. The action consists of several set pieces that showcase McKenna’s ninja skills of infiltration, disguise, gadgetry and outrageously bold attacks (who but a ninja master could infiltrate buildings full of armed men, kill dozens without firearms and come out unscathed?). If you like ninjas and Death Merchant novels (and what cultured person doesn’t?), you’re going to love the Shadow Warrior. Recommended for fans of the genre.

Buy a copy of The Hong Kong Massacre here.