Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Continuing Story...

Barry Eisler's John Rain series got a makeover a few years ago when he regained the rights to the first six books and reprinted them with his preferred titles. He had turned down a contract with a press for the next book in the series and continued it with the self-pubished The Detachment on Amazon's Thomas & Mercer imprint in 2011. It's not certain that he should have.

The first six books of the series traced a character arc as the assassin Rain started to come to terms with what his work had cost him personally. His few close friends led him to question whether or not he should continue what he was doing. This doesn't spoil anything, but 2007's The Killer Ascendant brought the arc to a solid close.

So Eisler has to take a few pages at the beginning of The Detachment to undo everything he'd done up until that point, giving short shrift to characters and resolutions readers had spent several hundred pages following. Once that's done, he sets up a pretty shallow rationale for Rain and his partner Dox to join up with two more Eisler characters, Ben Treven and Daniel Larison, to hear out a proposal from intelligence guru Scott Horton: take on three assassinations that will cripple a conspiracy that seeks to scare the United States into martial law with horrific terror attacks. Rain doesn't trust Horton, but the chance to prevent hundreds if not thousands of innocent deaths and somehow make up for the misery he's caused pushes him into the job. It isn't long before he figures out that mistrusting Horton was probably the right move, and the lesson could cost him and Dox their lives.

The Detachment's action scenes are top-notch, as Eisler uses his own training in martial arts to aid descriptions of its hand-to-hand fights. But the plot is pretty ridiculous and its main engine requires Rain to shift into stupidity overdrive in order to get moving. A reader can get the impression that even Eisler is saying "Oh, c'mon!" to himself at one or another turn things take. Rain's introspection takes over in too many places, veering close to placing our assassin on an analyst's couch.

Graveyard of Memories, the eighth John Rain book, is a prequel of sorts that's set before the series' beginning. That might be the right take, as The Detachment makes a good pitch that the John Rain novels haven't much more future than one of his targets.
John Sandford's Virgil Flowers has had to handle some oddball cases as we've read him over the years, but two tigers stolen from the Minneapolis Zoo may top them all in 2016's Escape Clause. Traditional Chinese "medicines" use body parts of tigers, so the clock is ticking on whether or not Virgil can find them before they're killed and dismembered for processing.

He's also got to worry about his girlfriend Frankie's sister Sparkle, who's shown up unexpectedly with her boyfriend, a priest who is celibate only when he's not on sabbatical like he is now. She's investigating companies that exploit migrant labor, and she's cute enough to make Frankie remind Virgil she carries a knife.

There's probably about a short story's worth of real plot in Escape Clause, as whole sections of the book seem like times when Sandford decided to throw some funny lines and goofball characters on the page for grins. The B-plot with Sparkle does nothing important and manages to gum up the forward movement of the main tiger-theft narrative. B-plots are no problem in most books, but when the main storyline is a ticking-clock kind of construct, then their digressions aren't so welcome.

Sandford still remains a rarity among a lot of crime writers in that his criminals are not suave super-geniuses but generally rather dumb people looking for a short cut to get what they want. If they thought a little harder, they'd either come up with a better short cut or realize there wasn't one, but they don't. And because they start out kind of dumb, sooner or later they make a dumb mistake that leads Virgil straight towards them. It's a welcome change from all of the Lecter-wannabes that reign in the bestseller lists, but that difference is about all Escape Clause has going for it.
John Wells remains the only CIA operative who ever successfully penetrated Al Qaeda, but that was a long time ago and most of what he's done with the agency since then has been as himself. He's also begun something of a domestic life with his ex-fianceƩ Anne and their daughter Emmie, which is where we find him when The Prisoner opens.

But someone at the top levels of the CIA is selling out secrets that are getting agents and assets killed. It's only a matter of time before one of those secrets causes something catastrophic to happen on the level of a September 11 attack -- or worse. So when Wells is called, he reluctantly returns to service. The plan: infiltrate Afghanistan and adopt a cover as a jihadi and get himself captured, to be sent to a secret prison site that houses top terrorist operatives who may have clues as to the mole's identity. In order for the plan to work only the commander of the prison guard can know who Wells really is, so he may be in as much danger from his own side as he is from his enemies.

Berenson writes with a style that's clean and straightforward enough not to stall the narrative but still has an elegance a lot of spy novels lack. He offers plausible motives for most of his cast and the resolution of the different plot threads follows directly from their movement forward. The Prisoner features several great action set pieces, including a taut prologue that highlights some of the problems the mole is causing.

But he's done a lot of this before. Wells has an adult son from a previous marriage, who's made clear that Wells too often abandoned family for work before. The "only the warden knows" undercover operation happened at least once in just about every 1970s and 1980s cop and crime show and Berenson doesn't bring anything new with it here. There might be some new things to do with John Wells, the spy who actually converted to Islam while undercover, but Berenson doesn't bring any of them up in The Prisoner.

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