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Monday, September 13, 2010

Reading List: Hostile Intent

Walsh, Michael. Hostile Intent. New York: Pinnacle Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7860-2042-3.
Michael Walsh is a versatile and successful writer who has been a Moscow correspondent and music critic for Time magazine, written a novel which is a sequel to Casablanca, four books about classical music, and a screenplay for the Disney Channel which was the highest rated original movie on the channel at the time. Two of his books have been New York Times bestsellers, and his gangster novel And All the Saints won an American Book Award in 2004. This novel is the first of a projected series of five. The second, Early Warning, was released in September 2010.

In the present novel, the author turns to the genre of the contemporary thriller, adopting the template created by Tom Clancy, and used with such success by authors such as Vince Flynn and Brad Thor: a loner, conflicted agent working for a shadowy organisation, sent to do the dirty work on behalf of the highest levels of the government of the United States. In this case, the protagonist is known only as “Devlin” (although he assumes a new alias and persona every few chapters), whose parents were killed in a terrorist attack at the Rome airport in 1985 and has been raised as a covert instrument of national policy by a military man who has risen to become the head of the National Security Agency (NSA). Devlin works for the Central Security Service, a branch of the NSA which, in the novel, retains its original intent of being “Branch 4” of the armed forces, able to exploit information resources and execute covert operations outside the scope of conventional military actions.

The book begins with a gripping description of a Beslan-like school hostage attack in the United States in which Devlin is activated to take down the perpetrators. After achieving a mostly successful resolution, he begins to suspect that the entire event was simply a ruse to draw him into the open so that he could be taken down by his enemies. This supposition is confirmed, at least in his own justifiably paranoid mind, by further terrorist strikes in Los Angeles and London, which raise the stakes and further expose his identity and connections.

This is a story which starts strong but then sputters out as it unfolds. The original taut narrative of the school hostage crisis turns into a mush with a shadowy supervillain who is kind of an evil George Soros (well, I mean an even more evil George Soros), a feckless and inexperienced U.S. president (well, at least that could never happen!), and Devlin, the über paranoid loner suddenly betting everything on a chick he last met in a shoot-out in Paris.

Thrillers are supposed to thrill, but if set in the contemporary world or the near future (as is this book—the fall of Mugabe in Zimbabwe is mentioned, but everything is pretty much the same as the present), they're expected to be plausible as regards the technology used and the behaviour of the characters. It just doesn't do to have the hero, in a moment of crisis, when attacked by ten thousand AK-47 wielding fanatics from all directions, pull out his ATOMIC SPACE GUN and mow them down with a single burst.

But that's pretty much what happens here. I'll have to go behind the spoiler curtain to get into the details, so I'll either see you there or on the other side if you've decided to approach this novel freshly without my nattering over details.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • We are asked to believe that a sitting U.S. president would order two members of his Secret Service detail to commit a cold blooded murder in order to frame a senator and manipulate his reelection campaign, and that the agents would carry out the murder. This is simply absurd.
  • As the story develops we learn that the shadowy “Branch 4” for which Devlin believes he is working does not, in fact, exist, and that Devlin is its sole agent, run by the director of NSA. Now Devlin has back-door access to all U.S. intelligence assets and databases and uses them throughout. How plausible is it that he wouldn't have figured this out himself?
  • Some people have cell phones: Devlin has a Hell phone. In chapter 7 we're treated to a description of Devlin's Black Telephone, which is equipped with “advanced voice-recognition software”, a fingerprint scanner in the receiver, and a retinal scanner in the handset. “If any of these elements were not sequenced within five seconds, the phone would self-destruct in a fireball of shrapnel, killing any unauthorized person unlucky enough to have picked it up.” Would you trust a government-supplied telephone bomb to work with 100% reliability? What if your stack of dossiers topples over and knocks off the receiver?
  • In several places “logarithm” is used where “algorithm” is intended. Gadgetry is rife with urban legends such as the computer virus which causes a hard drive to melt.
  • In chapter 12 the phone rings and Devlin “spoke into a Blu-Ray mouthpiece as he answered”. Blu-ray is an optical disc storage format; Bluetooth is the wireless peripheral technology. Besides, would an operative obsessed with security to the level of paranoia use a wireless headset with dubious anti-eavesdropping measures?
  • The coup de grace of the series of terrorist attacks is supposed to be an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack against the United States, planned to knock out all electronics, communications, and electrical power in the eastern part of the country. The attack consists of detonating an ex-Soviet nuclear weapon raised to the upper atmosphere by a weather balloon launched from a ship off the East Coast. Where to begin? Well, first of all, at the maximum altitude reachable by a weather balloon, the mean free path of the gamma rays from the detonation through the atmosphere would be limited, as opposed to the unlimited propagation distance from an explosion in space well above the atmosphere. This would mean that any ionisation of atoms in the atmosphere would be a local phenomenon, which would reduce the intensity and scope of the generated pulse. Further, the electromagnetic pulse cannot propagate past the horizon, so even if a powerful pulse were generated at the altitude of a balloon, it wouldn't propagate far enough to cause a disaster all along the East Coast.
  • In the assault on Clairvaux Prison, is it conceivable that an experienced special forces operator would take the mother of a hostage and her young son along aboard the helicopter gunship leading the strike?
  • After the fight in the prison, archvillain Skorenzy drops through a trap door and escapes to a bolt-hole, and at the end of the novel is still at large and presumed to be continuing his evil schemes. But his lair is inside a French maximum security prison! How does he get away? Say what you like about the French military, when it comes to terrorists they're deadly serious, right up there with the Mossad. Would a prison that housed Carlos the Jackal have a tunnel which would allow Skorenzy to saunter out? Would French officials allow the man who blew up a part of Los Angeles and brought down the London Eye with a cruise missile free passage?
Spoilers end here.  
It's a tangled, muddled mess. It has its moments, but there isn't the building toward a climax and then the resolution one expects from a thriller. None of the characters are really admirable, and the author's policy preferences (with which I largely agree) are exhibited far too blatantly, as opposed to being woven into the plot. The author, accomplished in other genres, may eventually master the thriller, but I doubt I'll read any of the sequels to find out for myself.

Posted at September 13, 2010 21:15