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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Reading List: Shock Warning

Walsh, Michael. Shock Warning. New York: Pinnacle Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7860-2412-4.
This is the third novel in the author's “Devlin” series of thrillers. When I read the first, Hostile Intent (September 2010), I described it as a “tangled, muddled mess” and concluded that the author “may eventually master the thriller, but I doubt I'll read any of the sequels to find out for myself”. Well, I did eventually read the sequel, Early Warning (January 2012), which I enjoyed very much, and concluded that the author was well on the path to being a grandmaster of the techno-thriller genre.

Then we have this book, the conclusion to the Devlin trilogy. Here the author decides to “go large” and widen the arena from regional terrorist strikes to a global apocalyptic clash of civilisations end-times scenario. The result is an utter flop. First of all, this novel shouldn't be read by anybody who hasn't read the previous two books—you won't have the slightest idea who the characters are, the backstory which has brought them to their present points, or what motivates them to behave as they do. Or maybe I can simplify the last sentence to say “This novel shouldn't be read by anybody”—it's that bad.

There is little more I can say which would not be spoilers for either this book or the series, so let us draw the curtain.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The key thing about a techno-thriller is that the technology should be plausible and that it should be thrilling. This novel fails by both criteria. The key conceit, that a laser operated by a co-opted employee of CERN on the Côte d'Azur could project lifelike holographic images of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Prophet Mohammed by bouncing them off the lunar ranging retroreflectors placed on the lunar surface is laugh-out-loud absurd. A moment's calculation of the energy required to return a visible signal to the Earth will result in howls of laughter, and that's before you consider that holograms don't work anything like the author presumes they do.

Our high-end NSA and special forces heroes communicate using a “double Playfair cipher”. This is a digraph substitution cipher which can be broken in milliseconds by modern computers.

Danny brings the MH-6H Little Bird “just a few feet off the high desert floor”, whereupon Devlin “rappelled down, hit the ground, and started running” if it were just a few feet, why didn't he just step off the chopper, or why didn't Danny land it?

Spoilers end here.  

I could go on and on, but I won't because I didn't care enough about this story to critique it in detail. There is a constant vertigo as the story line cuts back and forth among characters we've met in the first two novels, many of who play only peripheral roles in this story. There is an entire subplot about a manipulative contender for the U.S. presidency which fades out and goes nowhere. This is a techno-thriller in which the tech is absurd and the plot induces chuckles rather than thrills.

Posted at July 27, 2013 22:14