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.