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.

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.