Friday, July 22, 2016

Reading On

Spy writer Daniel Silva says in a note to open his latest, The Black Widow, that he began it before this year's terrorist attacks in Europe by the Islamic State. When they happened, he decided against changing what he was writing to make his story conform more closely to events since his fictional attacks served much the same purpose for his characters as the real ones would.

Brutal attacks in Paris and Amsterdam, carried off with no warning or even suspicion on the part of European intelligence agencies, spur a flurry of digging through files and contacts until a code-name surfaces for the mastermind: Saladin, after the medieval Kurdish commander who reconquered the Christian Holy Land for Islam. Soon the Israeli secret service, called the Office by its own members, becomes involved when its top agent Gabriel Allon sees a personal connection to one of the attacks. Gabriel is still officially dead and preparing to take the reins of the Office upon the revelation he is still alive, but before that happens he sets his sights on infiltrating Saladin's network and stopping more attacks. He will recruit Dr. Natalie Mizrahi, a French-born Jewish physician, to pose as a Palestinian woman embittered by the loss of her boyfriend and desiring revenge for his death. She will be bait for an ISIS recruiter, who can bring her in to the camps where she may learn enough about Saladin's plans to help the Office stop them -- if she survives.

Some of The Black Widow is familiar territory for Silva -- assembling his team, the Mission Impossible-styled layers of deception, the careful sketching of each character, the uncluttered narrative. He dwells on the "repeat performances" lightly enough to prevent them from dragging down his story, and adds his new developments and wrinkles through the parts of it told through Natalie's eyes.

Stories which feature the folks in the middle of the fight often hold interest more than the ones which focus on top-level leaders. I was wondering about why that might be and a possible answer is the hidden nature of spies and their work. Novels in which a president or prime minister has the guts, vision and virtue to do the right thing seem more glaringly wishful in light of current office-holders and aspirants. Those men and women demonstrate short-sightedness and incompetence all too often and we see the results. But novels seem to have a greater chance of being real when they feature dedicated men and women behind the scenes taking care of the messes that clueless leaders leave  -- or at least we have less reason to disbelieve they could really happen. When we face the reality that the top levels of our leadership are going to be a scene of the Clueless handing off to the Clueless and Shameless, stories about people at the front who know what's going and what they're doing has a strong appeal.
Jonathan Quinn is also a clandestine operator, but of a different kind. He's a "cleaner," someone who follows along after intelligence agents have dispatched a target and sanitizes the area to remove all traces and clues of their presence. He works for himself rather than for any one agency or government, although he selects his employers according to his own rules and he has a team who assists in different parts of his work.

Even at one remove from the actual spy vs. spy game, Quinn has managed to make some enemies, and so have his friends. While Quinn and his wife Orlando are vacationing with one of them, a man who wants revenge on Quinn's friend winds up with Quinn and Orlando's children in his grasp. As the title suggests, neither of the couple will spare the slightest expense or stop at anything to save their missing children in The Unleashed.

Brett Battles is on his tenth go with Quinn and so has a good handle on his characters and their interactions. He's lost none of his skill at creating tension or choreographing an action scene in just about any setting. Although his characters may be kind of standard stock from the Espionage Thriller store, he never lets them slip into stereotypes. Unfortunately, Unleashed amounts to an extended chase scene as Quinn and Orlando pursue leads on their children, follow them up, draw closer, work against time, and so on. Battles' ability to render lifelike what could be standard characters seems to desert him in bringing an entire novel's worth of life to a very standard storyline. His decision to render a cliffhanger via the fridging of a female character does nothing to redeem a lackluster effort and probably tips a "meh" outing for Quinn into a "yech."

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