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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Reading List: The Last Man

Flynn, Vince. The Last Man. New York: Atria Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4165-9521-2.
This is the thirteenth novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series. Unlike the two previous installments, American Assassin (December 2010) and Kill Shot (April 2012), this book is set in the present, as the U.S. is trying to extricate itself from the quagmire of Afghanistan and pay off locals to try to leave something in place after U.S. forces walk away from the debacle. Joe Rickman is the CIA's point man in Jalalabad, cutting deals with shady figures and running black operations. Without warning, the CIA safe house from which he operates is attacked, leaving its four guards dead. Rickman, the man who knows enough secrets from his long CIA career to endanger hundreds of agents and assets and roll up CIA networks and operations in dozens of countries, has vanished.

Mitch Rapp arrives on the scene to try to puzzle out what happened and locate Rickman before his abductors break him and he begins to spill the secrets. Rapp has little to go on, and encounters nothing but obstruction from the local police and staffers at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, all of whom Rapp treats with his accustomed tact:

“You're a bully and a piece of shit and you're the kind of guy who I actually enjoy killing. Normally, I don't put a lot of thought into the people I shoot, but you fall into a special category. I figure I'd be doing the human race a favor by ending your worthless life. Add to that the fact that I'm in a really bad mood. In fact I'm in such a shitty mood that putting a bullet in your head might be the only thing that could make me feel better.”

… “In the interest of fairness, though, I suppose I should give you a chance to convince me otherwise.” (p. 17)

Following a slim lead on Rickman, Rapp finds himself walking into a simultaneous ambush by both an adversary from his past and crooked Kabul cops. Rapp ends up injured and on the sidelines. Meanwhile, another CIA man in Afghanistan vanishes, and an ambitious FBI deputy director arrives on the scene with evidence of massive corruption in the CIA clandestine service. CIA director Irene Kennedy begins to believe that a coordinated operation must be trying to destroy her spook shop, one of such complexity that it is far beyond the capabilities of the Taliban, and turns her eyes toward “ally” Pakistan.

A shocking video is posted on jihadist Web site which makes getting to the bottom of the enigma an existential priority for the CIA. Rapp needs to get back into the game and start following the few leads that exist.

This is a well-crafted thriller that will keep you turning the pages. It is somewhat lighter on the action (although there is plenty) and leans more toward the genre of espionage fiction; I think Flynn has been evolving in that direction in the last several books. There are some delightful characters, good and evil. Although she only appears in a few chapters, you will remember four foot eleven inch Air Force Command Master Sergeant Shiela Sanchez long after you put down the novel.

There is a fundamental challenge in writing a novel about a CIA agent set in contemporary Afghanistan which the author struggles with here and never fully overcomes. The problem is that the CIA, following orders from its political bosses, is doing things that don't make any sense in places where the U.S. doesn't have any vital interests or reason to be present. Flynn has created a workable thriller around these constraints, but to this reader it just can't be as compelling as saving the country from the villains and threats portrayed in the earlier Mitch Rapp novels. Here, Rapp is doing his usual exploits, but in service of a mission which is pointless at best and in all likelihood counterproductive.

Posted at February 23, 2013 20:59