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.

Telefon

Telefon

Continuing with novels in my current favorite genre–espionage and assassin fiction from the paranoid 1970s–today my selection is Telefon, published in 1975 by Walter Wager. Like The Killer Elite, this book would probably be forgotten today had it not been made into a Hollywood movie two years later, starring Charles Bronson.

I was intrigued by the novel’s premise, that dozens of Soviet sleeper agents embedded in American society at the height of the Cold War in the early 1960s were still active in the mid 1970s, and could be activated by a simple telephone call. Wager gives this an additional Manchurian Candidate twist by making the agents unaware of their own status and mission. Through deep hypnosis and drugs, the sleepers have been programmed to forget that they are Russian agents, and given specific sabotage missions that they will perform robotically when they receive telephoned code phrases. The missions are designed to destroy key military-industrial facilities so as to spread chaos in the United States in the event of total war.

The plot hook is that a maniacal Stalinist traitor within the KGB has gone rogue, made off with a book containing the sleeper agents’ phone numbers and activation codes, and is systematically activating them in an attempt to provoke World War III. The novel’s protagonist is a KGB super-spy named Tabbat, who has been sent to the States to stop the maniac before he brings nuclear retaliation upon mother Russia. Tabbat is like a Russian James Bond but better: smooth with the ladies, deadly with handguns, tactically brilliant and possessed of a photographic memory. He’s also hip to American culture, loves Frank Sinatra and exchanges witty banter and plenty of sex with his beautiful female KGB assistant “Barbi”.

The novel is basically a manhunt story, as Tabbat and Barbi race across America trying to catch the maniac before he destroys more targets, without arousing the suspicion of American authorities or getting taken out by hostile Russian agents. There’s a twist or two along the way and some amusing cultural commentary on 1970s America that keep things interesting.

Overall, this was a competent and a stylish Cold War thriller, reminiscent of Frederick Forsyth and Trevanian. Though the plot was somewhat far-fetched and it read more like a screenplay than a novel at times, I found it a fast and entertaining read.

Get a copy of Telefon here.