Sunday, January 24, 2021

Flashpoint

Flashpoint
is yet another obscure thriller from the 1970s remembered only because it was made into a film--a 1984 adaptation starring Kris Kristoffersen which, I vaguely recall, was quite good.

This novel is intriguing in the way it connects two fronts of the Shadow War that are usually distinct: the Border War and the Assassin War. The protagonists, Logan and Ernie, are two "good ol' boy" Texas border patrolmen who enjoy nothing better than patrolling the very desolate "section 7" of the U.S.-Mexico border in their jeeps, tracking down illegals across the desert and taking them back to Mexico. They don't do this out of any spite toward the illegals, but simply for the challenge, solitude and outdoor adventure the job affords them. Both men are military veterans with experience operating in dangerous territory--Ernie in Korea and Logan as a Green Beret in 'Nam--and patrolling the Mexican border is a good peacetime test of their skills. Author La Fountaine does a good job of fleshing out their backgrounds and motivating their behavior; while they may be obnoxious "bubbas" at times who like to get drunk and visit Mexican whorehouses in their spare time, they are full of life and love adventure in a way you can't help but respect.

As the story opens, the patrolmen learn that a new high tech border security system is going to be implemented in their region, which would turn these border cowboys into glorified desk jockeys, watching for beeping lights on computer screens instead of riding out under the sun looking for "Indians" to apprehend. This puts them in a depressed and desperate state of mind, but that soon changes when Logan, taking a shortcut through an untravelled desert wash, discovers a crashed jeep buried deep in the sand. Digging it out, he finds a skeleton and a box full of cash--$850,000 in small, sequentially numbered bills. At this point the novel becomes a detective story, as Logan and Ernie try to discover the identity of the driver, the source of the cash, and whether it is safe to spend it without alerting authorities.

Things soon become even more confusing--and deadly--as shadowy forces and corrupt players converge on the patrolmen's turf. People connected to the cash are being killed off, and the patrolmen feel the noose tightening around them. Should they take the money and run for the border, or play it cool and deny everything? Who exactly is looking for the money, and why? Who can they trust? What was a jeep doing loaded with cash in the south Texas desert, who was the mysterious driver, and why is someone willing to kill anyone who knows anything about them? Everything is answered in the final pages, as the narrative gets increasingly dark, violent and desperate and a sinister conspiracy is revealed. While some of the plot developments seemed a little far-fetched, I think the shock ending was appropriate and should come as no surprise to veteran Shadow Warriors. 

Flashpoint is one of those cynical, paranoid, pessimistic stories that could only have been written in the 1970s--a period I love because I think it dealt more realistically with the nature of society and humanity than what came before or after. It was a unique era, in the wake of the 1960s, when Americans were free to be simultaneously politically incorrect, sexually liberated, and very cynical of the powers that be. Logan expresses the spirit of the times well when, after Ernie denies that the JFK assassination was a conspiracy, responds:
"Ernie," Logan cried in anger, "how can you say that after all the shit that's come out about Watergate and the CIA and the FBI and the assassination plots over the world? How can you still say that?"

Everything that happens subsequently in the story only vindicates Logan's cynicism. If you enjoy novels like Six Days of the Condor and films like Parallax View, where ordinary people are caught up in the machinations of sinister forces that go right to the top of the power structure--which is revealed to be hopelessly corrupt--you should add Flashpoint to your reading list. This book is a good reminder that the Shadow War is not just a war on the ground between spies, criminals and covert operators, but a war of the mind against the vast apparatus of lies and illusions that daytime society runs on.

While I wouldn't call La Fountaine a great writer, and some of the plot twists were a little implausible, overall he's spun a very compelling tale here that kept me turning the pages until the end. If you like good old adventure thrillers with a heavy dose of 1970s paranoia and political intrigue, you should enjoy this as much as I did.

Get a copy of Flashpoint here.
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Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Scorpion Signal


The Scorpion Signal, published in 1980, is the ninth entry in the brilliant Quiller spy fiction series by Trevor Elleston (writing as Adam Hall).

In this installment, "shadow executive" Quiller is called back to London after only two weeks of recovery time from his previous mission, due to an international emergency that calls for his special skills. Apparently a fellow Bureau operative named Shapiro was captured in Russia and taken to the notorious Lubyanka KGB headquarters in Moscow, but somehow escaped only to be abducted again in Germany, presumably by the KGB. Shapiro has intimate knowledge of various top secret Western projects, including a highly successful Russian spy network code-named "Leningrad". Quiller's mission is to find Shapiro, rescue him if possible, and if not, make sure he stays silent for good before he is forced to spill the beans.

Quiller at first declines the mission, but as someone who is not motivated by money, power, glory or duty so much as by personal excellence and the challenge of life on the edge, he soon relents. He is infiltrated into Moscow, and quickly finds himself playing tense cat-and-mouse games with enemy forces. Elleston excels at describing the mental side of spycraft; we get a running commentary of Quiller's mental calculations as he tries to avoid being captured or killed by border guards, police, KGB and rogue agents. There are long stretches of very detailed descriptions of Quiller's driving tactics, evasion maneuvers, martial arts strikes, physical condition and thought processes as he tries to stay alive. These stretches are my only real criticism of the series: they sometimes get a bit tedious and you start wishing the super-spy would stop his autistic streams of thought and move the narrative forward.

Elleston also does a great job evoking the paranoia of late Brezhnev-era Moscow, where dissident groups are protesting, police are stopping people randomly, and the KGB are always threatening to break into your flat or safe house and haul you away to Lubyanka. In fact, Quiller finds himself there at one point, facing brutal interrogation. But he manages to get free, then gets to work tracking down the people who turned him in and taking them out of action.

As is usually case in these novels, Quiller is kept partially in the dark by his London controllers, which creates misunderstandings and failures that become lethal dangers in the field. After a lot of intrigue where it's not entirely clear where things are going, the narrative kicks into overdrive when Quiller finds Shapiro, now half-deranged from his stay in hotel KGB, and discovers what's really going on. The story then becomes a classic race against time to stop a deadly mission before it sparks a superpower conflagration.

This was another exciting installment in the superior Quiller series. It's basically a series of tense chases, evasions, interrogations, investigations and killings, all with big geopolitical implications--which is what a great spy novel should be. Highly recommended for fans of thinking-man's spy fiction.

Get a copy of The Scorpion Signal here.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Telefon

Continuing with novels in my current favorite genre--espionage and assassin fiction from the paranoid 1970s--today my selection is Telefon, published in 1975 by Walter Wager. Like The Killer Elite, this book would probably be forgotten today had it not been made into a Hollywood movie two years later, starring Charles Bronson.

I was intrigued by the novel's premise, that dozens of Soviet sleeper agents embedded in American society at the height of the Cold War in the early 1960s were still active in the mid 1970s, and could be activated by a simple telephone call. Wager gives this an additional Manchurian Candidate twist by making the agents unaware of their own status and mission. Through deep hypnosis and drugs, the sleepers have been programmed to forget that they are Russian agents, and given specific sabotage missions that they will perform robotically when they receive telephoned code phrases. The missions are designed to destroy key military-industrial facilities so as to spread chaos in the United States in the event of total war.

The plot hook is that a maniacal Stalinist traitor within the KGB has gone rogue, made off with a book containing the sleeper agents' phone numbers and activation codes, and is systematically activating them in an attempt to provoke World War III. The novel's protagonist is a KGB super-spy named Tabbat, who has been sent to the States to stop the maniac before he brings nuclear retaliation upon mother Russia. Tabbat is like a Russian James Bond but better: smooth with the ladies, deadly with handguns, tactically brilliant and possessed of a photographic memory. He's also hip to American culture, loves Frank Sinatra and exchanges witty banter and plenty of sex with his beautiful female KGB assistant "Barbi". 

The novel is basically a manhunt story, as Tabbat and Barbi race across America trying to catch the maniac before he destroys more targets, without arousing the suspicion of American authorities or getting taken out by hostile Russian agents. There's a twist or two along the way and some amusing cultural commentary on 1970s America that keep things interesting.

Overall, this was a competent and a stylish Cold War thriller, reminiscent of Frederick Forsyth and Trevanian. Though the plot was somewhat far-fetched and it read more like a screenplay than a novel at times, I found it a fast and entertaining read.

Get a copy of Telefon here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Wilderness

After reading many novels about professional assassins targeting civilians, it was fun to read a thriller where the tables are turned: amateurs target a professional killer for death. That's the plot of Wilderness, published in 1979 by mystery writer Robert B. Parker (creator of the Spenser: For Hire series).

The book hooks the reader from the first page, as protagonist Aaron Newman witnesses an execution-style murder of a woman while out jogging on the railroad tracks. He notifies the police, and learns to his horror that the killer is a well-known gangster and murderous psychopath named Adolph Karl. Karl soon lets Newman know in the strongest possible terms that he shouldn't testify about the murder, by having his thugs tie up his wife, sexually abuse her and threaten further retaliation. Newman decides that rather cowering in fear or allowing a killer to walk free, his only honorable option is to go on the offensive and kill Karl himself. He recruits his neighbor, a big, tough Korean War vet named Chris, and they start stalking Karl and his gang. 

It was funny reading how these amateurs plan and execute their hit. Some of Newman's tactics were ridiculous, like posing as a deaf beggar and walking right into Karl's office to reconnoiter his defenses. Since Karl had immediately fingered Newman as the rat despite the police report being confidential, why would Newman not assume that Karl knew what he looked like? Also, targeting his entire gang seems a little ambitious for amateurs; wouldn't they at least consider going into a witness protection program?

This is really a story about the relationship between the emotionally needy Newman and his rather cold and domineering wife, and how Newman feels the need to prove his manhood by standing up to Karl. I didn't like either character that much, but Parker paints a believable picture of their personal drama and dysfunction. The only likeable characters were a sexually charged hitman and wife sent to take out Newman; they would have been right at home in a Quentin Tarantino film.

The novel really gets exciting about halfway through, when Newman, his wife and Chris decide to hunt down Karl and his gang while they're on a hunting trip to a lake in the Maine wilderness. It becomes a tense tale of wilderness survival, manhunting and sudden death that was gripping all the way to the end.

Overall, I enjoyed Wilderness; it was a fast-moving, fairly believable tale of how ordinary people might become ruthless killers if put in a horrific enough situation. And that's why I enjoy shadow-fiction so much: because it lets us imagine how we might be if we ever fully embraced our shadow selves.

Get a copy of Wilderness here.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

A Fine Night for Dying

In the spy-crazed 1960s, an obscure author named Henry Patterson wrote a series of six novels under the pseudonym "Martin Fallon" about a spy named Paul Chavasse. These books would probably be all but forgotten today had Patterson not gone on to become the world-famous, mega-selling author "Jack Higgins", thanks to his smash hit 1975 novel "The Eagle Has Landed". Fortunately, the Chavasse series was republished under the Higgins name and are easy to find, so we can all enjoy these entertaining espionage adventures from a simpler time.

Paul Chavasse is basically a brainier, less rakish version of James Bond; he has several university degrees, speaks numerous languages, excels in spycraft, firearms and hand-to-hand combat. He works for a small, secret department of British intelligence called the Bureau (just like Quiller), has a boss called Mallory and a secretary named Jean, who send him around the world on difficult and sensitive jobs that require his special talents.

In the sixth entry in the series, A Fine Night for Dying, Chavasse is called in to investigate a human trafficking operation after a London underworld boss is found dead in the English Channel, wrapped in an anchor chain. This might sound like a modest assignment for a super-spy, but Chavasse soon uncovers an international connection, as the ringleader turns out to be a Communist and his associate a Colonel in the Red Chinese army. Most of the action takes place at sea, as Chavasse, with the assistance of the Jamaican brother of the slain underworld boss out for revenge, track down the leaders of the murderous ring of infiltrators.

The novel's main villain is a compelling character named Rossiter--a blonde ex-Jesuit priest who, after being imprisoned in North Korea during the war, switched faiths from Catholicism to Communism and became a ruthless killer. Korean brainwashing was a popular theme in that era, explored in the classic novel The Manchurian Candidate and in Higgins' early novel Comes the Dark Stranger. Rossiter's conversion is symbolized by his preferred weapon: a razor-sharp dagger with a handle carved in the likeness of the Madonna (see cover above).
 
Like every Higgins novel I've read, this one is lean, linear and moves along at a breakneck pace. You don't get much filler in a Higgins story--no excessive description, graphic sex, technical specs or unnecessary sub-plots of the sort that would plague the genre by the 1980s, when writers like Van Lustbader and Clancy were best-sellers. You do get well-drawn characters, narrative tension, plot twists and plenty of action; Higgins is a master at keeping the pages turning and telling an exciting story without turning it into a comic book.

Some people might consider these early Higgins' novels a bit dated or politically incorrect, but for me that's part of their appeal. Here, technology and politics take a back seat to old-fashioned grit, courage and heroism. Men are men, for good or ill--driven by traditional masculine values like honor, bravery, greed, lust, violence, brotherhood and patriotism. Women are more traditionally feminine, but they're no shrinking violets--being often as virtuous, heroic, brave and passionate as the men. Higgins isn't trying to push a political agenda, but to tell a fast-paced, entertaining story, and he does that as well as anybody in the business. For a great overview of Higgins's early novels, see this post over at the Gravetapping blog: Jack Higgins: The Golden Age Novels.

A Fine Night for Dying is a typical novel from Higgins's "Golden Age", which means it's a fun, quick read that fans of adventure and espionage fiction should enjoy. Get a copy here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Stony Man #27: Asian Storm


After reading a lot of cynical, morally ambiguous Shadow-fiction recently, I decided to try a good old men’s adventure novel, where the good guys are all good, the bad guys are all bad, and the job of the former is to blow away the latter with .44 magnums, Galil sniper rifles, and whatever else is handy.

Such is the world of Mack Bolan—granddaddy of the men’s adventure genre, who sold millions of books and spawned dozens of imitators in the 1970s and 80s. Bolan began his paperback career as a vigilante known as the “Executioner” – a one-man army fighting a holy war against organized crime. By the 1980s, as Ronald Reagan was rekindling the Cold War with the Soviet Union, killing off mafia thugs was no longer enough for Bolan, so he expanded his war to include international terrorists and enemy spies. That was when Bolan joined the “Stony Man” organization, a deep black agency tasked with taking the gloves off and waging war on the KGB and their terrorist allies as ferociously as Bolan had previously taken on the mafia.

Unable to resist the prospect of Bolan matching wits with ninja assassins, I picked up Stony Man 27: Asian Storm, by Jerry Van Cook, and gave it a quick read. The story concerns the machinations of three ambitious Japanese brothers, members of an old Samurai family who have decided that the time has come to carve out an empire in Southeast Asia. Somehow, they have managed to engineer an alliance among several nations in the region, and are on the verge of uniting them into the Republic of Tanaka, which we’re told would be the world’s third great power, after the USA and China. To accomplish this, the Tanaka brothers employ the services of a ninja clan to do their dirty work, just as many Samurai families did in old Japan. The ninja clan is lead by a particular nasty piece of work named Yamaguchi, who is not only a highly skilled shadow warrior and master of disguise, but a sex fiend who enjoys killing women and children in the line of duty. At the Tanaka’s command, the ninjas are assassinating high-ranking Chinese leaders, framing the CIA in the process and bringing the USA and China to the brink of war. They are also stirring up deadly riots and committing terrorist acts stateside designed to inflame Asian opinion against the USA. The various plot threads come together nicely, as Stony Man teams Able Team and Phoenix Force race to stop the Tanakas from creating a perfect “Asian storm” and plunging the world into war.

You don’t read a novel like this for its high levels of Shadow op realism. Bolan, like Joseph Rosenberger’s Death Merchant and Shadow Warrior, has a superhuman ability to engage rooms full of armed men and come out unscathed, while leaving a room full of corpses in his wake. This is a skill the ninja themselves are legendary for; in fact, throughout this book Bolan and other members of the Stony Man crew manage to “out-ninja the ninjas”. Team members pull off several infiltration, diversion and disguise ops; Bolan completes a particularly impressive burglary using a grappling hook gun to cross between buildings, cut through a window, steal data from the ninja boss’s computer and get away via rope as automatic gun fire rains down on him. But at the end of the day, Bolan is more Dirty Harry than Sho Kosugi, and he prefers to settle things in a straightforward Western manner: by blasting the bad guys through the heart with his trusty Desert Eagle .44 Magnum.

For what it was and the time invested, Asian Storm didn’t disappoint. If you don’t expect literary subtlety or nuanced characters and treat this like a men’s comic book, you should have a good time. Get a copy of Asian Storm here.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Killer Elite

The Killer Elite by Robert Rostand is best known for being made into a 1975 film starring James Caan and Robert Duvall -- a decent movie that was very different from the novel (though it did feature one of the first appearances of ninjas in American media!).

This is another story from those cynical, paranoid 1970s, when, in the wake of the high-profile assassinations of the 1960s, Vietnam, Watergate, failed revolutions and revelations about the CIA's nasty antics around the world, every thriller seemed to involve shadowy government or corporate entities scheming to overthrow regimes, assassinate leaders and deceive humanity (sound familiar?). The works of Robert Ludlum, James Grady's Six Days of the Condor, and the film Parallax View are good examples of the genre; The Killer Elite adds an assassination storyline reminiscent of Frederick Forsyth's classic The Day of the Jackal.

The novel's protagonist, Mike Locken, is an operative for SYOPS--a secret American agency tasked with transporting and securing Soviet defectors and other VIPs who may be targets of enemy action. As the story begins, three international assassins have been identified entering England following an anonymous tip-off. Their target is a popular African leader named Nyoko living in exile in London, whom his homeland's strongman leader wants to eliminate to defeat a popular uprising. 

The premise of the novel is an intriguing one: what if a government used a "killer elite" of assassins to take care of problems instead of military forces? It was inspired by an actual proposal made by a member of the British House of commons, as related in the novel to Locken's boss:

Tell me, Collis, have you ever heard of John Lee? ... Member of Parliament here a few years back. Absolute terror on military spending. Made a brilliant speech in the Commons in sixty-nine with a radical proposal on how to cut the size of the British Army. Lee's idea was to turn it into a small elite of political assassins. ... His logic was that a small power like Britain couldn't hope to compete militarily with the superpowers. Lee thought in this day the political assassin was more fearsome than the Bomb, hence a better tool of diplomacy. His speech made quite a splash in the dailies.

The African strongman has decided to adopt this policy, employing mercenary assassins in place of a standing military to take care of problems like Nyoko. The other major plot element driving the narrative is the fact that Locken was nearly killed during his previous assignment, by an assassin who happens to be one of the three hunting Nyoko. So Locken has an opportunity for revenge, and his new assignment becomes very personal.

After this intriguing setup, the novel becomes a chase story, as Locken has to safely escort Nyoko and his daughter out of Britain while luring the hated assassin out so he can kill him. There are twists and turns as treacheries and deceptions are discovered, and a fairly dramatic final confrontation. But just as the story climaxes, Rostand decides to give us several pages of exposition explaining exactly how the plot twists and machinations led to this point, which I found jarring and not very good story-telling. I also found several of the characters improbable, like the old man Nyoko and his city girl daughter, who suddenly turn into fierce primal warriors in the Welsh bush.

According to his bio, author Robert Rostand (real name Robert Hopkins) spent considerable time working and living abroad, which brings a worldly sophistication to his writing that elevates this novel a notch or two above the typical thriller. But it doesn't reach the heights of other well-travelled authors like Forsyth, Trevanian or Adam Hall. The Killer Elite wasn't a great read, but it was interesting enough that I'll probably try the next installment of the Mike Locken series or other works by Rostand.

Get a copy of The Killer Elite here.