Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Bookman Cometh

With 2014's The Watchman, English thriller and mystery writer Adrian Magson introduces a new character: the shadowy, competent and brutally efficient bodyguard for hire, Marc Portman.

Magson's so far investigated crimes in DeGaulle-era France (Lucas Rocco), played in the world of spies (Harry Tate) and followed leads on potentially dangerous news stories (reporter Riley Gavin and retired cop Frank Palmer). So he knows the world of the espionage/mystery thriller, and both his plotting and action set pieces are well done, painted with broad, strong strokes -- even if they are familiar, they are executed at a high level.

Portman has been hired off-the-books by a member of the British Secret Service who fears that a ransom negotiation mission for his protege is not exactly what it appears. Overruled in his caution by office personnel who don't mind risking others' necks for their own advancement and prestige, the agent reaches out to Portman, who will hang back and make sure the protege and her military partner are safe. If they're not, then it will be up to Portman to try to get them out or at least make their loss a costly one for their killers.

Magson, as mentioned above, is playing on a field he knows well and handles just as well. Although some of the ins and outs of who is which Somali warlord are a little fuzzy, it doesn't slow down the story and once people start shooting at Portman, it doesn't matter which enemy they are. Magson probably plans on unwrapping some of Portman's history in later books, but meeting him where he is makes for some fine reading diversion in the meantime.
A "void moon" is an astrological aspect of the moon that Leo Renfro considers extremely unlucky. He communicates this fear to Cassie Black, a former thief now trying for one last job to help her get enough money to take her daughter away from the girl's adoptive parents, and makes Cassie promise not to be involved in the job during the period of the void moon. The last time she was, he notes, her late partner Max fell to his death on the job that got Cassie arrested.

Unfortunately, Cassie gets stuck hiding in the room during the void moon, and whether that influences anything or not, she finds out the job has hidden ties to organized crime and a level of money involvement that will be fatal for her if she doesn't figure a way out.

Void Moon, published in 2000, was Michael Connelly's first novel with a female protagonist and one of his few to focus on a criminal instead of someone who investigates them or defends them in court. It meets his usual skilled standards of narrative, dialogue and plot, and adds some character development as well. Cassie is skilled and clever, but she's not nearly as smart as she thinks she is and she starts out the novel rather unappealingly selfish. She'll grow beyond the second, but the first will have serious consequences for people around her. The mix-in with mob crime and the double-crosses involved aren't as clear as they should be and probably could have been edited out without hurting the story. But those are some wrinkles in an overall smooth and enjoyable outing with Connelly as he tries something new.
Christopher Hyde, writing as "Paul Christopher," has had a lot better run with his "Templar" series featuring retired US Army Lt. Col John "Doc" Holliday than he did with archaeologist Finn Ryan; the former series has four books ending in 2008 while the latter will see its ninth volume come out in 2015.

Doc teaches history at West Point, which allows him to open the novel with some expository lectures that will set the stage for what follows in the series opener, 2009's The Sword of the Templars. It will also allow him to lecture other characters -- frequently -- including his niece, Peggy Blackstock, who will join him on a quest begun when Doc's own uncle dies and leaves him some mysterious items in his will.

Among the items are clues to find a sword, wrapped in a Nazi battle standard that may have been Hitler's own. But before Doc and Peggy can do much sleuthing about the sword and its origins, the uncle's house burns down and the pair find themselves caught up in a centuries-long war fought behind the scenes and involving people who'd rather stay that way.

Sword and the rest of the series should be a lot of silly fun, given Christopher's subtle and un-subtle jabs at other novelists who try to riff on the legends of the old Knights Templar, like Dan Brown. Doc and Peggy are remarkably dense protagonists who seem to have no real awareness that their presence in the lives of anyone connected to the sword and their old uncle spells certain doom for those people. Doc regularly refuses to arm himself even though a murderous ancient conspiracy is hunting not just him, but also his young niece. It's hard to believe that Christopher is not sending up these sorts of thrillers while writing them, much as George MacDonald Fraser did in his novels of the Victorian-era ne'er-do-well Harry Flashman.

But the problem is how rude and dismissive he is of anyone who disagrees with his views, expressed through Doc's lecturing monologues. It seems clear early on that when we hear Doc discourse on a pet peeve, we hear Christopher's thoughts. This tone drains the story of fun and makes the satire more mean than pointed. Not for nothing, apparently, does "Paul Christopher"'s real last name rhyme with "snide."

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