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.

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 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.

Stony Man #27: Asian Storm

Stony Man #27: Asian Storm

After reading a lot of cynical, morally ambiguous Shadow-fiction recently, I decided to try a good old men’s adventure novel, where the good guys are all good, the bad guys are all bad, and the job of the former is to blow away the latter with .44 magnums, Galil sniper rifles, and whatever else is handy.

Such is the world of Mack Bolan—granddaddy of the men’s adventure genre, who sold millions of books and spawned dozens of imitators in the 1970s and 80s. Bolan began his paperback career as a vigilante known as the “Executioner” – a one-man army fighting a holy war against organized crime. By the 1980s, as Ronald Reagan was rekindling the Cold War with the Soviet Union, killing off mafia thugs was no longer enough for Bolan, so he expanded his war to include international terrorists and enemy spies. That was when Bolan joined the “Stony Man” organization, a deep black agency tasked with taking the gloves off and waging war on the KGB and their terrorist allies as ferociously as Bolan had previously taken on the mafia.

Unable to resist the prospect of Bolan matching wits with ninja assassins, I picked up Stony Man 27: Asian Storm, by Jerry Van Cook, and gave it a quick read. The story concerns the machinations of three ambitious Japanese brothers, members of an old Samurai family who have decided that the time has come to carve out an empire in Southeast Asia. Somehow, they have managed to engineer an alliance among several nations in the region, and are on the verge of uniting them into the Republic of Tanaka, which we’re told would be the world’s third great power, after the USA and China. To accomplish this, the Tanaka brothers employ the services of a ninja clan to do their dirty work, just as many Samurai families did in old Japan. The ninja clan is lead by a particularly nasty piece of work named Yamaguchi, who is not only a highly skilled shadow warrior and master of disguise, but a sex fiend who enjoys killing women and children in the line of duty. On the Tanakas’ orders, the ninjas are assassinating high-ranking Chinese leaders, framing the CIA in the process and bringing the USA and China to the brink of war. They are also stirring up deadly riots and committing terrorist acts stateside designed to inflame Asian opinion against the USA. The various plot threads come together nicely, as Stony Man teams Able Team and Phoenix Force race to stop the Tanakas from creating a perfect “Asian storm” and plunging the world into war.

You don’t read a novel like this for its high levels of Shadow op realism. Bolan, like Joseph Rosenberger’s Death Merchant and Shadow Warrior, has a superhuman ability to engage rooms full of armed men and come out unscathed, while leaving a room full of corpses in his wake. This is a skill the ninja themselves are legendary for; in fact, throughout this book Bolan and other members of the Stony Man crew manage to “out-ninja the ninjas”. Team members pull off several infiltration, diversion and disguise ops; Bolan completes a particularly impressive burglary using a grappling hook gun to cross between buildings, cut through a window, steal data from the ninja boss’s computer and get away via rope as automatic gun fire rains down on him. But at the end of the day, Bolan is more Dirty Harry than Sho Kosugi, and he prefers to settle things in a straightforward Western manner: by blasting the bad guys through the heart with his trusty Desert Eagle .44 Magnum.

For what it was and the time invested, Asian Storm didn’t disappoint. If you don’t expect literary subtlety or nuanced characters and treat this like a men’s comic book, you should have a good time. Get a copy of Asian Storm here.

Chameleon

Chameleon

For my money, the late 1970s to early 80s were the heyday of popular assassin-fiction. That era gave us classics like Shibumi by Trevanian, The Matarese Circle and The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum, The Ninja by Eric Van Lustbader and The Brotherhood of the Rose by David Morrell. I recently discovered another author who wrote popular thrillers in that era who is less well-known today, but still worth reading: William Diehl. His novel from 1981, Chameleon, is right in the sweet spot of fast-paced, sprawling thrillers of the period, featuring stylish assassins, international terrorism, political intrigue, vast conspiracies and intense shadow warfare.

The novel’s plot revolves around an intriguing concept: an anonymous, shadowy black ops bureau that employs freelance operatives from around the world, communicates via coded phone calls, and pays agents via cash deposits in bank accounts of their choosing. The agency, known as “the Service”, takes contracts from corporate interests who have problems they need solved quickly, professionally and without a paper trail. The leader of the Service is a mysterious figure called “Chameleon” that no intelligence agency can identify; figuring out who Chameleon is and what his organization is up to is what this story is about in a nutshell.

The book’s protagonist is ex-CIA agent turned journalist Frank O’Hara, who lives in hiding in Japan after exposing his CIA boss’s corruption. Now O’Hara, along with a very spunky and sexy reporter named Eliza, are on the scent of a huge scoop implicating his ex-boss, involving a mysterious mastermind called Chameleon, an oil consortium, wartime Japanese intrigue, international assassins and a secret order of martial arts mystics call higaru-dashi. All of this turns into a somewhat convoluted story that takes detours into Venezuela, Jamaica, Haiti and elsewhere before climaxing in Japan. Along the way we encounter several rather improbable characters, including a wise-cracking hacker-slacker called the Magician who, using an ultra cutting-edge device called a “personal computer”, has managed to gain access to most of the Western world’s intelligence databases; a paranoid, obsessive oil expert who keeps priceless industry secrets in a coded personal journal; a mad Bulgarian assassin now living in a Haitian asylum run by Catholic monks; a bear who drinks beer at a bar; and a tattooed cross-dresser with almost superhuman skill at martial arts.

Overall, I found this an entertaining but not stellar read. The opening chapters were very promising, with their detailed accounts of several Service black operations; the coded phone calls and other machinations of the agents were well done. But as the story developed, Diehl started to lose the plot and spend too much time on threads and characters I didn’t find very believable or compelling. The story did finish on a high note, with an assault on the Big Bad’s mountain lair and a final plot twist that would have been right at home in an Ian Fleming or Jack Higgins novel.

It really seems like Diehl was trying to capitalize on the success of Van Lustbader’s best-selling The Ninja from the previous year. This novel has many similar plot elements: the Japanese post-War intrigue and corruption, the American-Japanese cultural hybrid protagonist who belongs to an order of mystic super-martial artists, the old family feud, the wise Sensei, the terrifying Eastern assassin, the violence and the explicit sex. If you liked Van Lustbader’s novel, or the novels of Ludlum and Trevanian from that era, you will probably enjoy Chameleon. It’s not a classic or a particularly believable example of assassin-fiction, but it’s a fun read for fans of the genre.

Get a copy of Chameleon here.

Splinter Cell

Splinter Cell

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

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

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

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

Buy a copy of Splinter Cell here.