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.

The Violent Enemy

The Violent Enemy

Whenever I’m in the mood for a quick, entertaining men’s adventure story involving shadow warfare, my go-to author is Jack Higgins; he never disappoints. The Violent Enemy, published in 1966 (originally titled A Candle for the Dead), is no exception. Featuring two of my favorite plot elements–a prison break and a heist–and a backstory about the Irish Republican Army, the novel sounded right up my alley.

Protagonist Sean Rogan is similar to several other Higgins protagonists (most notably Liam Devlin of The Eagle Has Landed): an ultra-tough, dangerous Irish shadow warrior who led special operations in World War II and the guerrilla war against British rule in Ireland. He has spent twelve of the last twenty years in prison, and is now doing hard labor in a maximum security prison in England.

Rogan is denied early release as the novel begins, which sets up a plot element that Higgins used in several other early novels (Hell is Too Crowded, Dark Side of the Street, Hell is Always Today): a prison break. During his latest stay, escape artist Rogan has figured out a complicated route of the prison that involves cutting through wire cages, climbing up beams, crawling through ventilation ducts and roping down walls. But the real challenge is figuring out how to get through the desolate moors that surround the prison and find a safe haven, a clean identity and transportation away from the scene. When all of that is offered by a former top IRA man on the outside, who apparently wants Rogan out real bad but doesn’t say why, Rogan can’t refuse.

Rogan executes the jailbreak and soon finds himself back with his old IRA boss, named O’More, who has a job that calls for Rogan’s special talents. O’More wants Rogan to rob an armored car as it is delivering a large sum of cash to a train at a stop in a small village. He has assembled a crew which, as per usual in a Higgins novel, includes some rather nasty and treacherous characters and an attractive young woman who quickly becomes Rogan’s romantic interest. This leads to personal dramas and betrayals that threaten to derail the plot, but Rogan is a true alpha warrior and he asserts his authority on the unruly gang.

As Rogan and his crew are planning and executing the heist, a parallel police investigation is going on, led by a Scotland Yard detective who Rogan rescued from the Germans back in ’43. The detective doesn’t consider Rogan a real criminal, but a political prisoner, and since the troubles that landed Rogan in prison are no longer hot, let’s just say that he’s not a very motivated pursuer. The story moves quickly to a satisfying climax in the usual Higgins style, with the heisters on the run from the coppers, double-crossers on the run from both, and one or two twists along the way.

This was a fast-paced, entertaining read, with no wasted verbiage, simple but compelling characters and action that never goes over the top — all very typical of Higgins’s early work. This is basically a prison break, heist and getaway novel, much like the novel Breakout that I reviewed here. I was a little disappointed by the lack of IRA-style shadow warfare, but overall I have no complaints.

Get a copy of The Violent Enemy here.

Prison Break

Prison Break

One of my long-standing interests as a student of the Shadow arts is “prison breakology”: the art and science of busting out of jail. This is a field as old as imprisonment itself, which demands the full extent of human ingenuity, daring, determination and endurance. As I see it, the Shadow-minded are all prisoners of civilization to some extent, so we should take inspiration and learn from these escape artists where we can. And for those who do live dangerously in the shadows, whether as a criminal, spy, special operator or what have you, these skills could be the key that frees you from years of non-life in a human cage, or even death.

Prison Break: True Stories of the World’s Greatest Escapes by Paul Buck is a compendium of prison breaks pulled off over the past two or three centuries. Focusing mostly on British convicts, Buck profiles dozens of amazing and ingenious breaks and the clever individuals who executed them. Buck’s research is impressive; not only do we learn about high-profile escapes from maximum security prisons such as Alcatraz and the Maze, but we get many lesser-known breaks that are almost all interesting in some way. Whether the escape involves climbing over walls, tunneling under them, busting out during transit, fleeing from courtrooms, impersonating others or being flown out by helicopter, we get many examples to study. We also learn about some of  the most amazing and celebrated escape artists of all timemen like “Honest Jack” Sheppard and Walter “Angel Face” Probyn, who seemed to make a career out of breaking out of prisons and making fools of  their captors. Such men are the champion athletes and maestros of escapeology, and in my book are at least as worthy of glorification!

One of the most striking things about these accounts is how quickly most of the escapees are caughtusually within a few weeks or months of their escapes. Most go back to their old haunts, old tricks and old associates, and soon find themselves back in the big house. It’s clear that many of these criminals, while geniuses at outsmarting the authorities while in prison, are not brilliant at figuring out how to do the same on the outside. Their biggest challenge, it would seem, is learning to live in the rather dull and domesticated manner of the typical law-abiding citizenand who can blame them?

One solution to this dilemma was found by “Gentle Johnny” Ramensky during World War II. A safecracker who had escaped from prison five times, he was contacted by members of British Intelligence who were looking for skilled and daring men to parachute behind enemy lines and steal top secret documents from Axis safes. Ramensky excelled in his new Shadow profession, breaking numerous safes, including some in the HQ’s of Goering and Rommel. Despite being set free and winning high praise for his war-time work, after the war Ramensky went back to his old ways, soon landing in prison and making several more escape attempts. Which goes to show that for some men, the Shadow life is the thing, regardless of whether society gives it their stamp of approval or not.

Prison Break is not as detailed as the Shadow War student would like; it’s broken into short accounts of each escape, most just a few paragraphs long. For more detailed study, the bibliography has an excellent list of references. This probably isn’t the kind of book you want to sit down and read in long stretches; the accounts tend to blur together and the stories become somewhat repetitive, but it makes excellent casual or bathroom reading. Definitely recommended for all students and fans of prison breakology.

You can purchase a copy of Prison Break here.

Breakout

Breakout

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

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

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

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

Buy a copy of Breakout here.

The Shadows: Introduction

The Shadows: Introduction

One of my motivations for starting this blog was to develop an idea that’s been brewing in my brain for a while now, which I call simply the Shadows.

What are the Shadows? They are the society of shadow operators, who have been given many names—thieves, assassins, spies, special forces, saboteurs, terrorists, ninjas—but who share a common mindset, skillset and attitude to life. Shadows operate out of the light, outside the law, in darkness and secrecy to achieve their goals. They emphasize stealth, skill and deception over brute force and violence.

Shadows don’t concern themselves with abstract matters of good and evil, right and wrong, justice, progress or God. The Shadow attitude is that technique trumps ideology, actions speak louder than words, and impeccable skill is its own morality. Nor are Shadows aligned with any particular political faction, ideological cause, social stratum, religious sect or ethnic group. They may be found among criminals and law-enforcers, terrorists and soldiers, cults and corporations, businessmen and bureaucrats, spies and survivalists, security forces and revolutionaries, anarchists and fascists, and everything in between. The Shadows are in a class by themselves, which transcends other allegiances.

The closest historical analogs of the society of Shadows are perhaps the Ninja of feudal Japan, the Ye Ban Tou of imperial China, the Hashashin of medieval Persia, the Thieves Guilds of the Ottoman Empire, and various brotherhoods found among the criminal underworld and covert operations communities to this day. In spirit, the society stretches back to the earliest civilizations, all of whom had thieves, spies and assassins, and before that to our prehistoric ancestors who stealthily stalked prey of both the two- and four-legged varieties.

Shadow Operations

“Shadow operations”, or “Shadow ops”, are the various missions carried out by Shadows. These range from burglaries, heists and prison breaks to assassinations, spying, scouting, sabotage, psychological warfare, disinformation and dirty tricks. The best Shadow ops aren’t common knowledge; they are either still secret or are attributed to an accident, a false flag, a patsy, or something else besides the actual perpetrators. Here are a few Shadow ops from history that are common knowledge to illustrate the idea:

Obviously Shadows are not “good guys”; they are generally regarded as villains, rogues, or necessary evils at best. But they are a universal human reality, so perhaps it’s time to give them a name, discuss them as a group with a common mentality and set of skills, and give them some respect for living a life of action and daring in a world that all too often resembles a prison planet. I will be exploring these ideas in future blog posts, and possibly in a future book. Enjoy.