The Peking Target

 After the over-the-top novel Chant, I was in the mood for something more realistic and better written, but with many of the same elements: 1980s action, a sinister Eastern mystic, martial arts assassins, and an ultra-skilled Western shadow warrior who takes them on. The Peking Target, published in 1982, fit the bill nicely; it’s the tenth installment in the brilliant Quiller series by Elleston Trevor (writing as Adam Hall).

As the story opens, “shadow executive” Quiller is watching a body being fished out of the Thames river, which we learn is that of a fellow Bureau operative who had just arrived from Peking with a most urgent and sensitive message for his superiors. Unfortunately, the agent was murdered on his way from the airport and his secret message died with him. Quiller himself is nearly killed when a car rams him as he’s leaving the murder scene. It’s apparent that something very sinister is going on in Peking, which someone is willing to kill agents on their home soil to protect. So the Bureau sends Quiller, still banged up from the hit attempt, to China to investigate.

The assassinations escalate dramatically after Quiller arrives in Peking under cover as a security man for the British delegation. The British Secretary of State is blown sky high right next to Quiller during the funeral of the Chinese premiere, his body absorbing the blast and saving the agent from serious injury. Then the American ambassador is taken out, and Quiller evades another murder attempt on the streetonly his superior martial arts skill saving him from death at the hands of his skilled assailant. Two more agents are killed just before Quiller can get the information they had about the assassins, one found dead in the coils of his own pet boa constrictor. While all this is going on, Quiller learns that a mysterious figure named Tung Kuo-feng is involveda Triad leader who commands a team of elite assassins but whose whereabouts is unknown. After the beautiful Li-fei is sent to kill Quiller, thinking that he killed her brother, a Triad assassin, Quiller learns that Tung is holed up in a former monastery on a mountain in a remote part of South Korea.

The novel shifts into overdrive for the final third as Quiller begins his set piece mission: to air-drop near the mountain before dawn, make his way stealthily to the monastery, infiltrate the grounds, take out Kuo-feng and get out without getting killed by his retinue of assassins. It’s a tall order, but Quiller is the late 20th century British equivalent of a ninja, so if anyone can do it he can! The mission is further complicated by the assignment of a female guide who is a skydiving expert, mountaineer and fluent Korean speaker, as Quiller normally works alone. As usual with Quiller missions, things go sideways almost immediately and the executive is forced to improvise. Without providing too many spoilers, Quiller faces some brutal adversity but manages to get to the monastery, where he discovers that other world powers are involved who are using the assassinations to spread chaos for a nefarious geopolitical purpose.

This was probably the most fast-paced, action-packed Quiller installment I’ve read. Quiller is a real ninja in this one, who showcases his impressive range of skills: he kills men with his bare hands (he never carries a gun), evades pursuers by floating under debris on a river, air-drops into enemy territory by night, evades and ambushes a sniper, sends cleverly coded messages to deceive his captors, escapes a cell, sneaks around a well-guarded enemy compound, creates a diversionary explosion, flies a helicopter, and gets into an incredible mental battle with Kuo-fong in which the Triad leader showcases his impressive “ki” powers to try to control Quiller. Though never cartoonish, this one is slightly over the top by Trevor’s standards. I suspect he was influenced by the success of Eric van Lustbader’s blockbuster 1980 novel The Ninja and similar works of that era, and decided to turn up the ninja elements in this one. There was something in the zeitgeist of the early 1980s that produced a lot of great spy/assassin/ninja thrillers, and this is another one to add to the list. Great read.

Get a copy of The Peking Target here.

Chant

Chant

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

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

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

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

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

Get a copy of Chant here.

The Invisible Assassins

The Invisible Assassins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get a copy of The Invisible Assassins here.

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.

Maxwell’s Train

Maxwell’s Train

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get a copy of Maxwell’s Train here.

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 an 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 Flight of the Falcon

The Flight of the Falcon

The Flight of the Falcon, published in 1983 by Robert Lindsey, is the true story of the continuing adventures of Christopher Boyce, a proto-Shadow Scout and one my personal inspirations. Boyce was previously the subject of a 1979 best-seller by Lindsey, The Falcon and the Snowman, which recounted Boyce’s exploits with his friend Daulton Lee selling top secret information to the Soviets in the mid-1970s.

Boyce, a former Catholic altar-boy whose patriotic father was McDonnell-Douglas Corporation’s Director of Security, had gotten a job in a classified communications center called the “Black Vault” in 1974. This gave him access to all sorts of sensitive information, including CIA cables that spoke about various nefarious Agency activities such as the overthrow of an Australian Prime Minister. Incensed by what he learned, the idealistic Boyce, encouraged by the degenerate, drug-dealing rich kid Lee (played by Sean Penn in the 1985 film adaptation), decided to strike back by selling classified documents to  the Soviets for hard cash. This doesn’t end well for them, though; in 1977, Lee was arrested in front of the Soviet embassy in Mexico City with incriminating microfilm. He soon confesses and implicates Boyce, who was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

The narrative of Flight begins on January 21, 1980, as Boyce has just broken out of Lompoc prison in California, a tough federal facility he’d been transferred to the previous July. This opening section of the book was riveting. We learn about Boyce’s desperate desire to escape Lompoc, where the upper-middle class white kid felt less than safe, having already witnessed a gang killing in a nearby cell. We also learn about Boyce’s preparations, running miles every day around the prison yard to prepare himself for his escape, and arranging to have wire cutters, a mattress and a makeshift ladder hidden in a hole that would get him over and through the yard’s razor-wire fences. His first days on the run in the desolate central California wilderness read like a thriller, as he has to evade teams of pursuers, dogs, helicopters, and survive on whatever food he can scavenge from the countryside or steal from houses. We learn that Boyce, nicknamed “The Falcon” for his love of falconry, was an accomplished outdoorsman from an early age, and he calls upon some of those skills to survive on the run.

After nearly dying from poisoned food left out for him by an angry resident whose outdoor refrigerator the fugitive had previously burglarized, Boyce manages to connect to an old friend, who helps him get a new identity and transportation to a remote area of northern Idaho. There he takes refuge with a sort of outlaw commune led by an eccentric, gold-toothed mountain woman named Gloria White. Boyce, America’s most-wanted fugitive, has slipped out of law enforcement’s net and dropped off their radar completely.

At this point the book takes a deep dive into the efforts by law enforcement to track Boyce down; we meet some of the people leading the search and learn far too much detail about the various leads, suspects and dead-ends they pursue. This part of the book, which makes up a good third of its length, was much less interesting than the rest, and should have been edited down. People read a book about a fugitive for the fugitive’s adventures on the run, not for the dull procedural work of law enforcement officers pursuing him!

Things get much more exciting as we learn about Boyce’s new method of funding himself on the lam: robbing banks. He gets the idea from some of the outlaw Idaho kids he finds himself hanging out with, and soon he is carrying out a string of armed bank robberies across Idaho and Washington. His method is simple: go into a bank with a handgun, demand the loose cash from the teller, and get to his getaway car fast. He would get maybe $5000 per job this way, and robbed some 17 banks during his crime spree. Later Boyce would admit that this was the one aspect of his exploits that he regrets; he considered himself a political dissident, not a violent criminal, so threatening people with guns and stealing cash didn’t really fit with this self-image.

In any case, after more than a year as a most-wanted fugitive, Boyce decides that his best course of action is to get out of the USA and into Russia, and he comes up with a scheme to do that. He makes his way to the Olympic Peninsula (my neck of the woods), where he purchases a boat with the intention of sailing to Alaska, across the Bering Strait and defecting to the Soviet Union. Changing his plans, Boyce begins taking flying lessons, intending to fly out of the country to safety (Boyce later claimed in his autobiography that he actually intended to fly back to Lompoc and break Daulton Lee out of prison). Boyce was two weeks away from obtaining his pilot’s license when U.S. marshals apprehended him on August, 1981 at a burger drive-in in Port Angeles, bringing his incredible adventures to an abrupt end. Convicted and sentenced to 68 years, Boyce got some rough treatment in prison, including solitary confinement and a beating by fellow inmates he suspects was orchestrated by higher-ups. He was released in 2002 after serving 25 years, and is now married, living a quiet life and pursuing his favorite hobby, falconry.

All in all, The Flight of the Falcon is an incredible true story, which despite the slow sections I mentioned, I consider required reading. Long before Snowden or Assange, Boyce dared to defy the U.S. intelligence community, operate according to his own code, have adventures worthy of a Jack Higgins novel and live to tell the tale. Get a copy here.

Blood Oath

Blood Oath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get a copy of Blood Oath here.

The Scorpion Signal

The Scorpion Signal

The Scorpion Signal, published in 1980, is the ninth entry in the brilliant Quiller spy fiction series by Trevor Elleston (writing as Adam Hall).

In this installment, “shadow executive” Quiller is called back to London after only two weeks of recovery time from his previous mission, due to an international emergency that calls for his special skills. Apparently a fellow Bureau operative named Shapiro was captured in Russia and taken to the notorious Lubyanka KGB headquarters in Moscow, but somehow escaped only to be abducted again in Germany, presumably by the KGB. Shapiro has intimate knowledge of various top secret Western projects, including a highly successful Russian spy network code-named “Leningrad”. Quiller’s mission is to find Shapiro, rescue him if possible, and if not, make sure he stays silent for good before he is forced to spill the beans.

Quiller at first declines the mission, but as someone who is not motivated by money, power, glory or duty so much as by personal excellence and the challenge of life on the edge, he soon relents. He is infiltrated into Moscow, and quickly finds himself playing tense cat-and-mouse games with enemy forces. Elleston excels at describing the mental side of spycraft; we get a running commentary of Quiller’s mental calculations as he tries to avoid being captured or killed by border guards, police, KGB and rogue agents. There are long stretches of very detailed descriptions of Quiller’s driving tactics, evasion maneuvers, martial arts strikes, physical condition and thought processes as he tries to stay alive. These stretches are my only real criticism of the series: they sometimes get a bit tedious and you start wishing the super-spy would stop his autistic streams of thought and move the narrative forward.

Elleston also does a great job evoking the paranoia of late Brezhnev-era Moscow, where dissident groups are protesting, police are stopping people randomly, and the KGB are always threatening to break into your flat or safe house and haul you away to Lubyanka. In fact, Quiller finds himself there at one point, facing brutal interrogation. But he manages to get free, then gets to work tracking down the people who turned him in and taking them out of action.

As is usually case in these novels, Quiller is kept partially in the dark by his London controllers, which creates misunderstandings and failures that become lethal dangers in the field. After a lot of intrigue where it’s not entirely clear where things are going, the narrative kicks into overdrive when Quiller finds Shapiro, now half-deranged from his stay in hotel KGB, and discovers what’s really going on. The story then becomes a classic race against time to stop a deadly mission before it sparks a superpower conflagration.

This was another exciting installment in the superior Quiller series. It’s basically a series of tense chases, evasions, interrogations, investigations and killings, all with big geopolitical implications–which is what a great spy novel should be. Highly recommended for fans of thinking-man’s spy fiction.

Get a copy of The Scorpion Signal here.