Night Boat to Paris

Night Boat to Paris

The 1950s were well before my time, but it must have been a golden age for readers of paperback spy, crime and adventure fiction. That decade had so many elements that make for exciting stories: the Cold War at its most intense, the CIA and KGB waging unfettered shadow wars across the globe, the American empire rising, the British empire falling, the Mafia’s invisible empire at its peak, and thousands of veterans of World War II and Korea still young and looking for action. It’s not surprising that the decade introduced so many genre greats, like Jack Higgins, Alistair MacLean, Ian Fleming, Donald Westlake, Dan J. Marlowe and Lionel White. A more obscure author who got his start in the ’50s was Richard Jessup; I recently picked up his 1956 novel Night Boat to Paris in a lot of vintage spy paperbacks and gave it a quick read.

The novel’s protagonist is Duncan Reece, an ex-World War II British Intelligence operative who fell out of favor with the class-oriented Establishment after the war and turned to criminal work. He is approached by his old intel chief, who considers Reece the perfect man for a very sensitive mission. It seems that an ex-Nazi engineer has developed a nuclear satellite technology for the Reds, but the microfilmed blueprints have wound up in the possession of a wealthy Spaniard and a purchase has been arranged at a charity bazaar at his French villa later that month. Several intelligence agencies, most notably the Reds, are in hot pursuit of the film and are expected to be closely watching the villa. Reece’s mission is to stage a robbery at the bazaar, taking the party-goers’ valuables as well as the microfilm in order to fool the Reds into thinking it wasn’t enemy action. Reece agrees to the job for the very tidy sum in 1956 dollars of one hundred thousand, plus half the loot, an import-export license and his Scotland Yard file and fingerprint records.

Reece’s first task is to travel to France and assemble a crew for the heist. He enlists an old associate and all-around shady operator named Tookie, a desperate German gunman named Otto, a French muscle-man named Saumur, and two American mafiosi operating out of Marseilles named Gino and Marcus. There is considerable intrigue leading up to the main event, as Reece is pursued by mysterious assailants in black suits, and he suspects that one of his own men is an informant for the Reds. Several enemy operatives are killed, and there’s some interesting introspection from Reece about why he is doing this that speaks to the inner plight of the shadow warrior:

You’re a different man, Reece, from when you first started thinking for yourself. A man who has no principles, ascribing to no morality, who has perhaps had the morality knocked out of you. You’re a killer; a procurer and thief; a man who has great wit and wisdom when it comes to saving your own neck and feathering your nest. You see that the world is mad and are playing along with it.

Can such a man slip into the comfortable rut of a middle-class merchant?

Another question.

And no answer for it.

Finally the crew gets to the locale of the op and sets themselves up in a farmhouse, where they begin training for their commando-style raid on the villa. From here on out it’s a riveting thriller, as the crew, clad in identical black coveralls, berets, face paint and bandanas, assault the party with a rope ladder, grappling hook and Tommy guns, get the loot and the microfilm and try to make their escape. They get to the border and desperately try to find away across, while more men in black show up and they are forced to take drastic action in a mountain village. Conveniently, a village girl unhappy about her arranged marriage joins the crew and leads them on a secret route across the mountains. This finale is a bit less believable than the rest of the story, but it races to a suitably noir ending as the traitor is revealed and Reece makes a run for it into the shadows.

This is just the kind of novel I like: an old-school, hard-boiled adventure that combines espionage, a heist, desperate criminals and ruthless shadow operators. There’s plenty of action and intrigue, but with a more sophisticated style than you get in a typical men’s adventure novel. All in all, this was an excellent little thriller, and a glimpse back to a time when spy stories could be told in 158 pages instead of 400+, without all the bloated writing, technological gimmickry and over-the-top action that would plague the genre in later decades. I will certainly be reading more novels from this era, and can recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the early hardboiled spy work of authors like Donald Hamilton, Jack Higgins, Dan Marlowe and Edward Aarons.

Get a copy of Night Boat to Paris here.

100 Megaton Kill

100 Megaton Kill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get a copy of 100 Megaton Kill here.

Pay Any Price

Pay Any Price

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get a copy of Pay Any Price here.

Operation Fireball

Operation Fireball

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get a copy of Operation Fireball here.

Circus

Circus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The XYY Man

The XYY Man

Cat burglary and espionage are two of my favorite categories of Shadow op; any story that combines them in a believable way is going to go on my to-read list.

The XYY Man, published in 1970 by Kenneth Royce, is such a story. It’s the first of a series of eight novels about William “Spider” Scott, a skilled “creeper” (cat burglar) and occasional British government operative. The novel was adapted as a 3-part British TV series pilot in 1976 and returned for 10 more episodes in 1977.

The story starts slowly as we’re introduced to the protagonist, a second-story man who has just been released from his third stay in prison and is determined to go straight. We also meet his devoted girlfriend Maggie and his square cop brother Dick, whose influence is the only thing keeping Spider from going back to his old life of crime. Meanwhile, a nasty copper named Bulman with a personal grudge is harassing Spider, accusing him of another burglary and preventing his brother from advancing in the force.

Things look bleak for Spider when a man named Fairfax approaches him out of the blue and makes him an offer he can’t refuse: Bulman will be called off, Dick will be given a promotion, and Spider will receive 15000 pounds to set himself up with a legitimate business and a new life with Maggie. All Spider has to do is steal some documents from a safe in the Chinese Legation in London—which turns out to be the most secure, unfriendly building Spider has ever seen. And if he’s caught, his sponsors will deny all involvement and Spider will have to face the music like a common criminal.

Spider initially refuses, considering it a mission impossible and not wanting to spend his best remaining years in a tough prison, or six feet under if the Chinese get him. But after casing the building carefully, the sheer challenge of it gets his juices flowing and he decides to give it a go. It’s the same old story we see time and time again with Shadow-oppers: the safe, square, daytime life just can’t compete with the buzz of breaking the law, living on the edge and operating in the shadows.

The story kicks into gear as Spider goes ahead with the op, breaking into the Legation building from an adjoining rooftop, creeping past alarms and into the safe room. But things go sideways when he discovers the shocking information the documents contain, and the next thing we know Spider is a fugitive—from British intelligence, the police, the Chinese, Maggie, Dick and soon, the CIA and the KGB. Spider has to evade them all and figure out what to do when you have nowhere to go and you’re the most wanted man in London, if not the world. In other words, it’s a Shadow operator’s worst nightmare, but a shadow-fiction reader’s dream scenario.

I liked the first-person, real-time perspective this novel gives you of the creeper Scott as he tries to complete his mission, evade his pursuers and extricate himself from an epic international clusterf*k on the streets of London. We get an up-close look at some of the tricks of his trade, the quick wits required and the intensity of being a most-wanted fugitive on the run. There were some twists at the end that I found a little confusing and the story wrapped up a bit too quickly, but otherwise it was a gripping story.

My only other criticism is that the writing was a bit awkward and difficult to follow at times, particularly for an American reading in 2021. It reminded me of an early Jack Higgins novel, with its unpolished style and street-level view of British Shadow operatives of a bygone era. But the plot was compelling, the action exciting but never over the top, and the main character Spider the kind of protagonist the shadow-fiction fan has to root for. I enjoyed The XXY Man and will be reviewing other installments of the Spider Scott series in the near future. Recommended for fans of old-school crime, spy and adventure fiction.

Thai Horse

Thai Horse

After enjoying Chameleon, I decided to try another thriller by William Diehl: Thai Horse, published in 1987.

The novel concerns the trials and tribulations of Christian Hatcher, an ultra-lethal shadow operative who has been doing dirty deeds for a deep black military outfit called the “Shadow Brigade” since the Vietnam War. Hatcher’s Brigade director is a devious man named Sloan, who was responsible for Hatcher getting locked up in a brutal Central American prison for the past three years. Sloan has evidence that an old Annapolis buddy of Hatcher’s named Cody—who was allegedly killed when his plane was shot down in ‘Nam back in ’73—is still alive and may be involved in organized crime in Southeast Asia. Cody is the son of a revered four-star general with terminal cancer who wishes to see his son one last time. To avoid any embarrassing publicity, the job is given to the Shadow Brigade, and Sloan promptly gets Hatcher released from prison and offers him the mission.

(As a side note, I liked Hatcher’s description of Sloan:

A hundred years ago, thought Hatcher, Sloan would have been hawking elixirs from the back of a wagon or selling shares in the Brooklyn Bridge. Now he sold dirty tricks with fictions of adventure and patriotism, seducing wide-eyed young men and women into the shadow wars, to become assassins, saboteurs, gunrunners, second-story men, safe crackers, even mercenaries, all for the glory of flag and country. Hatcher had met Sloan in the time of his innocence and had bought the lie.

Let’s face it, it’s shady recruiters like Sloan who make the shadow-fiction world go round!)

Hatcher gets on the case, and soon lands in Hong Kong, an old haunt where he once infiltrated the criminal underworld as a Shadow Brigade operative. He makes contact with an old American friend named “China” Cohen, a likeable scoundrel who is now the “white Tsu Fi”—the legendary boss of a Hong Kong triad. It turns out that the leaders of the most powerful triad have good personal reasons to want Hatcher dead, and he soon finds himself the target of a big-time hit. This leads to a scene reminiscent of the assault on Tony Montana’s estate in the classic 1983 film Scarface, as black-turtlenecked, submachine gun-toting hitmen storm Cohen’s walled compound.

Following a lead that a Dutch smugger may have information about Cody, Hatcher, Cohen and an old Asian flame named Daphne head upriver into outlaw territory ruled by the notoriously brutal gangster Sam-Sam Sam. Here the movie that came to mind was Apocalypse Now!, as the crew encounters colorful, violent characters of various races and nationalities on the river, Hatcher finds his target and things go sideways in an explosively bloody way.

The intrigue gets ever more complex as people near Hatcher are knocked off, Sloan continues to be devious, drug lords prepare a massive shipment, a terrorist attack hits Paris, the rival triad leader hunts Hatcher, Hatcher hunts Cody, a group of colorful expatriate Vietnam vets gets involved, and it all somehow revolves around the meaning of the mysterious term “Thai Horse”. Is it Cody? Someone else? An organization? An operation? A drug? Or just an old Thai legend? All is revealed in the last 60 or 70 pages, as Hatcher solves the mysteries of Cody and the Thai Horse, his beef with the triad comes to an ultra-violent climax, and various personal scores are settled in brutal ways.

Like Chameleon, Thai Horse is reminiscent of  Eric Van Lustbader’s work from that era, and both authors were clearly influenced by thriller mega-seller Robert Ludlum. Like them, Diehl gets a little melodramatic, wordy and implausible at times, but he knows how to keep the pages turning and construct a complex but entertaining yarn. If you like shadow warfare with an Asian flavor, deadly assassins, international conspiracies, war-time backstories, strong characters, brutal violence, stylish romance, a dash of explicit sex and just enough realism to make the story plausible without becoming dull, you should enjoy this novel.

Get a copy of Thai Horse 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.

Quiller Solitaire

Quiller Solitaire

The early 1990s were a challenging time for espionage thriller writers. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, it was difficult to find adversaries that were both convincing and menacing enough to make dramatic villains. China was not yet ready for prime-time as the West’s new arch-rival, drug lords weren’t sufficiently organized or ideological, Third Reich holdovers were too long in the tooth, KGB-sponsored terrorism of previous decades had died down, Islamic terrorists hadn’t yet struck hard, Russian gangsters hadn’t yet emerged as a new bogeyman, and sinister corporate overlords struck too close to home. Was the era of the super-spy over?

Apparently not. In Quiller Solitaire, the 16th installment of the Quiller series published in 1992, author Elleston Trevor (aka Adam Hall) manages to weave a compelling mission for Quiller in the post-Cold War era that involves a Red Army Faction splinter group, ex-Stasi officers, Islamists and a terrorist plot that looks rather prescient given the Bojinka plot and the 9/11 attacks of the decade to come.

As the novel opens, Quiller is being debriefed about the death of a fellow Bureau agent who was incinerated when his car was run off the road and exploded. Quiller, who was following the agent to his rendezvous, witnessed the crash and now feels guilty about the death and obligated to avenge it. The agent had been investigating the murder of a diplomat in Berlin by suspected terrorists of the German Red Army Faction, and now Quiller is sent in to investigate both murders. Quiller learns that a group called “Nemesis” is planning a imminent terrorist attack using a commercial airliner, possibly inspired by the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, when a bomb aboard a Pan Am flight exploded over Scotland, killing 270 people. Desperate to stop the plot, Quiller goes in alone, posing as an international arms dealer and dangling a deadly carrot in front of the Nemesis leader in hopes of luring him out and destroying the organization.

Like most novels in this series, a large chunk of the narrative consists of Quiller attempting to surveil and avoid surveillance by enemy operatives, both on foot and in automobiles (he’s an expert driver), his stream-of-consciousness calculations punctuated by short, sharp hand-to-hand encounters (he’s also a lethal martial artist). Quiller novels are “spy procedurals” in much the same way Parker novels are “thief procedurals”: we get a detailed look inside the world of a very focused and disciplined shadow operator, see how he plans his operations, seizes opportunities, neutralizes threats and moves relentlessly forward to complete his missions despite the inevitable f*k-ups, plot twists and enemy actions.

Also typical for this series, in the last third of the book the action really heats up, as Quiller learns more details about the plot and takes desperate measures to stop it. Operating deep undercover, cut off from Bureau directors, he has to fly by the seat of his pants and gamble his life on an apparently suicidal mission. Things get increasingly eerie as the enemy plot begins to resemble 9/11; was Kalid Sheikh Mohammed a fan of the series? The highlight of the story for me was an airdrop into the depths of the Sahara desert by an exhausted Quiller, as he penetrates to the heart of the Nemesis operation and moves toward the cliff-hanging airborne climax.

Quiller Solitaire is one of my favorite entries in a series that is one of the masterworks of the spy fiction genre. 27 years and 16 books into the series, there is no sign of any decline in quality and the stories remain as riveting as ever, even as the Cold War that spawned Quiller is history.

Get a copy of Quiller Solitaire 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.