Friday, May 9, 2014

Secret Agent Men

John Wells may think he has a lot in common with Roger Murtaugh, but he keeps being pulled back into the spy game, at a potentially devastating cost to his personal relationships. This time he's doing a favor of sorts for his old boss and friend, Ellis Shafer, and his old other boss and non-friend, Vinny Duto. But a simple information interview mires Wells in a scheme targeting CIA operatives in the Far East and uncovers a dangerous new advance in Iran's nuclear weapons program. Is the "counterfeit agent" of the title the man feeding information to the Americans? Is it a former CIA station chief running his own operation? Or is it Wells, whose heart may no longer be in a game where hesitation and lack of focus can be deadly?

In his eighth Wells novel, Alex Berenson does a good job of layering in his villains, his conspiracy, the mystery behind it and the motives of the people involved. He does a little less well with his protagonist, at times losing his handle on Wells and his motivations. Wells' current romantic partner wants him to choose between life as an agent in harm's way or life with her and has given him a deadline for making his choice. This should be a serious matter given the context of the relationship, but it only crops up now and again in a couple of out-of-context reflections, seemingly to remind Berenson of that development as much as us. And the Islamic faith Wells adopted as his own, something that might set up an interesting conflict between him and the often Islamic-supremacist enemies he fights, gets two whole paragraphs out of close to 400 pages. While the story itself is tightly woven and a lot of fun to read, this is a series that has often promised more but not completely delivered.
Retired Delta Force Lt. Colonel Brad Taylor has some knowledge of the sharp end of the fight, and used that knowledge to build authenticity into his initial Pike Logan thriller. Logan operates with a special, extra-legal group called the Taskforce, which has as its mission stopping threats to the United States whenever and wherever in the world they show up.

In the series' second novel, 2012's All Necessary Force, a mission in Cairo has left a Taskforce member dead and another seriously wounded. Logan counted both men as friends, and so has special motivation for finding out the cause of the problem and in thwarting the terrorist cell behind it. But Logan's connection to the Taskforce is not what it used to be, and the plotters may already be on U.S. soil -- where the Taskforce is forbidden to operate. The steps Logan may have to take to protect his country could drive away his new partner, Jennifer Cahill, as well as make him the same kind of killer he pursues.

Taylor also relies on his experience to use his story to ask some interesting questions. If the Taskforce must have absolutely reliable operatives of the highest character in order to be trusted with its extra-legal authority, what might happen to those same operatives if their missions force them to take steps that war with that character? Can they still be trusted? Should they be? What does giving that kind of authority to hunt the bad guys whenever and wherever and however do to those who have it?

Force still has plenty of rough patches, and Taylor tends to address his questions directly rather than leaving them to be discerned by a reader. But he is asking them, which sets Logan and his Taskforce company a little ahead of the espionage suspense thriller pack and makes them a fun, even though violent, read.
Dewey Andreas, on the other hand, doesn't really ask those kinds of questions very often, and in 2013's Eye for an Eye, a personal tragedy has given him even less of a reason to do so than before. He's out for revenge, and the government agencies that he's worked with in the past can either use his desire and help him or they can get the heck out of the way.

Dewey pretty much saved the country in his initial outing, Power Down, and then saved the world in both of his subsequent adventures -- once from a nuclear war between India and Pakistan and once involving Iran and Israel. But here his motives are strictly personal, which only makes him deadlier than usual.

Coes' most obvious antecedent for his hero is the late Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp, was also often The Only Man for the Job as well as The Only One Willing to Do What It Takes to Get the Job Done. But Coes does not have Flynn's style or skill, and he relies more heavily on clich├ęd storylines like the hero's loved ones threatened or the grim avenger protagonist. He's also less cautious about some of his real-world research; he threw a slew of errors of fact into Coup d'Etat and gave Dewey the ability to travel at superhuman speeds.

Power Down was an inventive story with a not-so-run-of-the-mill credible threat to the United States into which Dewey was dragged by the logic of the narrative. Coes returns to that pattern with Eye, but with a padded storyline, villains and motives out of the Espionage Thriller 101 textbook. He's certainly better than average in the genre and his writing style continues to improve as well as maintain its strengths -- detailed action scenes that grip hard and don't let up. But he also has plenty of room for the improvement that Power Down suggested readers could expect.

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