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.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Chameleon

For my money, the late 1970s to early 80s were the heyday of popular assassin-fiction. That era gave us classics like Shibumi by Trevanian, The Matarese Circle and The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum, The Ninja by Eric Van Lustbader and The Brotherhood of the Rose by David Morrell. I recently discovered another author who wrote popular thrillers in that era who is less well-known today, but still worth reading: William Diehl. His novel from 1981, Chameleon, is right in the sweet spot of fast-paced, sprawling thrillers of the period, featuring stylish assassins, international terrorism, political intrigue, vast conspiracies and intense shadow warfare.

The novel's plot revolves around an intriguing concept: an anonymous, shadowy black ops bureau that employs freelance operatives from around the world, communicates via coded phone calls, and pays agents via cash deposits in bank accounts of their choosing. The agency, known as "the Service", takes contracts from corporate interests who have problems they need solved quickly, professionally and without a paper trail. The leader of the Service is a mysterious figure called "Chameleon" that no intelligence agency can identify; figuring out who Chameleon is and what his organization is up to is what this story is about in a nutshell.

The book's protagonist is ex-CIA agent turned journalist Frank O'Hara, who lives in hiding in Japan after exposing his CIA boss's corruption. Now O'Hara, along with a very spunky and sexy reporter named Eliza, are on the scent of a huge scoop implicating his ex-boss, involving a mysterious mastermind called Chameleon, an oil consortium, wartime Japanese intrigue, international assassins and a secret order of martial arts mystics call higaru-dashi. All of this turns into a somewhat convoluted story that takes detours into Venezuela, Jamaica, Haiti and elsewhere before climaxing in Japan. Along the way we encounter several rather improbable characters, including a wise-cracking hacker-slacker called the Magician who, using an ultra cutting-edge device called a "personal computer", has managed to gain access to most of the Western world's intelligence databases; a paranoid, obsessive oil expert who keeps priceless industry secrets in a coded personal journal; a mad Bulgarian assassin now living in a Haitian asylum run by Catholic monks; a bear who drinks beer at a bar; and a tattooed cross-dresser with almost superhuman skill at martial arts.

Overall, I found this an entertaining but not stellar read. The opening chapters were very promising, with their detailed accounts of several Service black operations; the coded phone calls and other machinations of the agents were well done. But as the story developed, Diehl started to lose the plot and spend too much time on threads and characters I didn't find very believable or compelling. The story did finish on a high note, with an assault on the Big Bad's mountain lair and a final plot twist that would have been right at home in an Ian Fleming or Jack Higgins novel.

It really seems like Diehl was trying to capitalize on the success of Van Lustbader's best-selling The Ninja from the previous year. This novel has many similar plot elements: the Japanese post-War intrigue and corruption, the American-Japanese cultural hybrid protagonist who belongs to an order of mystic super-martial artists, the old family feud, the wise Sensei, the terrifying Eastern assassin, the violence and the explicit sex. If you liked Van Lustbader's novel, or the novels of Ludlum and Trevanian from that era, you will probably enjoy Chameleon. It's not a classic or a particularly believable example of assassin-fiction, but it's a fun read for fans of the genre.

Get a copy of Chameleon here.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Murder Business

The Murder Business by Peter C. Herring is an obscure thriller from 1976 with a premise so intriguing that I decided to track down a copy and read it. It's basically a what-if  story: what if James Bond, due to psycho-sexual pathology and a tough childhood, turned to the "dark side" and become an assassin working for a SPECTRE-like cabal headquartered in the USA instead of Her Majesty's Secret Service?

The dark side Bond in question is a handsome, dark-haired professional killer named Michael, who, like Bond, lives in a London flat, jets around the world on dangerous missions for a powerful cabal, is a smooth, stone-cold operative with a way with killing men and loving ladies alike. The cabal in question here is not MI6, but The Board--a circle of ten very powerful men who are said to secretly run the USA, and by extension, the world. The Board was apparently responsible for the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers in the 1960s, as the latter were threatening to expose and reign in their shadowy power. The Board has toned down their assassinations in the 1970s, but are still targeting politicians who threaten them with exposure--often dispatching their best operative, Michael, to do the wetwork.

The novel begins with Michael doing what he does best: sneaking up on a troublesome VIP and efficiently executing him with his trusty knife. Then we get to go inside the Board's meetings as they plot more killings to ensure their continued world domination, followed by Michael doing another job--this one rather kinky, as it involves sex, killing and Michael's rather orgasmic reaction to both. We also get to meet Jenny, Michael's beautiful girlfriend who is the first person in the world that the stone-cold killing machine has ever had feelings for.

The story takes a sudden turn when the Board discovers a plot to destroy them by a rival organization seeking to unseat them as the world's top Illuminati. Michael, with Jenny in tow, takes a vacation to the south of France to get away from the heat but soon finds himself hunted by unknown assassins. Who is trying to kill him and why? What should Michael do about Jenny, now that she knows he is involved in the murder business? The tale gets darker and more violent as more assassins show up, people are killed in gruesome ways, the Board is hit hard and the stress of it all causes a mental breakdown of not only Jenny but the normally Terminator-like Michael.

Despite the promising set-up, I'm afraid Peter Herring is no Ian Fleming. The writing is often clumsy and over-written; there's a lot of irrelevant detail about what Michael ate, the color of the sky, etc., the characters are rather cliched, and the story lacks the flair that made Fleming's Bond a worldwide phenomenon. This reads like a men's adventure novel that is trying to be more literary than it needs to be, or than the author is capable of. Which is too bad, because Michael had the potential to be for the spy genre somewhat like what Parker was for the crime genre: a psychopathic protagonist who shows us what life can be like on the dark side, if you throw off the yoke of governments, laws and morals and become a freelance Shadow operative dedicated purely to the ruthless execution of your craft. But to achieve that status, Herring would have had to be a better writer; he simply doesn't bring the writing chops or technical details that Donald Westlake did to the Parker series. Nevertheless, if you are intrigued by the premise and fascinated by dark side spy, crime and assassin fiction (what I call "shadow-fiction"), you may find The Murder Business worth your time.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

River of Darkness

James Grady stormed onto the spy fiction scene in 1974 with his debut novel Six Days of the Condor (basis for the classic film Three Days of the Condor), a novel I greatly enjoyed for its paranoid take on America’s shadow government, its memorable characters Ronald Malcolm and the French assassin Joubert, and its brilliant concept of “Section 9, Department 17” which I have written about previously here.

Grady wrote a sequel to Six Days of the Condor called Shadow of the Condor the following year, which I read years ago and found rather forgettable. I recently decided to give Grady another try with his much meatier offering from 1992 called River of Darkness (aka The Nature of the Game). This is Grady’s attempt to write a sweeping, epic novel about American shadow wars from the 1960s to the 1980s, as told through the experiences of ex-Green Beret and CIA operative Jud Stuart.

The narrative switches frequently between Stuart’s current travails as a Jason Bournesque agent who has become expendable and is on the run, to the efforts of an honorable ex-marine tasked by shadowy D.C. players with tracking Stuart down and taking him out, to flashbacks to Stuart’s earlier adventures as a shadow operative. The first flashback is especially intense, as Jud is air-dropped behind enemy lines in 1960s Laos and has to survive a close encounter with Pathet Lao guerrillas. By the early 1970s Stuart is working for a shadowy outfit run by rogue American generals, taking part in everything from the Pinochet coup to spying on the Nixon White House, raiding Russians in Afghanistan, drug-running and assassinating VIPs. But Stuart eventually becomes a liability who knows far too much, so he becomes a hunted man as the novel opens.

The flashbacks to Jud’s covert operations were the novel’s highlights for me, both for the riveting action sequences and the authentic, historically relevant nature of the ops. This is where Grady, a former investigative journalist, shines: he gives the reader a sense of what really goes on behind the headlines, in the deep shadows where America’s secret wars are won and lost.

Unfortunately, there is a lot more going on in this novel than just Jud’s black ops, such as banal romances, family dramas, dull D.C. intrigues and fairly generic characters. It feels like Grady was trying to emulate best-selling spy novelists of the time like Ludlum, Clancy and Van Lustbader, who favored sprawling, complex, bloated epics over the leaner, more focused thrillers of yesteryear (like Six Days of the Condor). While I’ve enjoyed more than a few fat thrillers over the years, I thought this one had a little too much going on, and too many characters and machinations that just weren’t very interesting. 

All in all, I’d say River of Darkness is about half a riveting novel with authentic detail and gripping action, and about half a rather plodding and padded effort to make the novel more epic and Ludlumesque. It’s still a cut above run of the mill and comic book spy thrillers, and worth reading if you’re interested in a realistic fictional take on some of the dark goings-on in the Vietnam to Iran-Contra era in the name of American freedom and security.

Get a copy of River of Darkness here.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Prison Break

One of my long-standing interests as a student of the Shadow arts is "prison breakology": the art and science of busting out of jail. This is a field as old as imprisonment itself, which demands the full extent of human ingenuity, daring, determination and endurance. As I see it, the Shadow-minded are all prisoners of civilization to some extent, so we should take inspiration and learn from these escape artists where we can. And for those who do live dangerously in the shadows, whether as a criminal, spy, special operator or what have you, these skills could be the key that frees you from years of non-life in a human cage, or even death.

Prison Break: True Stories of the World's Greatest Escapes by Paul Buck is a compendium of prison breaks pulled off over the past two or three centuries. Focusing mostly on British convicts, Buck profiles dozens of amazing and ingenious breaks and the clever individuals who executed them. Buck's research is impressive; not only do we learn about high-profile escapes from maximum security prisons such as Alcatraz and the Maze, but we get many lesser-known breaks that are almost all interesting in some way. Whether the escape involves climbing over walls, tunneling under them, busting out during transit, fleeing from courtrooms, impersonating others or being flown out by helicopter, we get many examples to study. We also learn about some of  the most amazing and celebrated escape artists of all time–men like "Honest Jack" Sheppard and Walter "Angel Face" Probyn, who seemed to make a career out of breaking out of prisons and making fools of  their captors. Such men are the champion athletes and maestros of escapeology, and in my book are at least as worthy of glorification!

One of the most striking things about these accounts is how quickly most of the escapees are caught–usually within a few weeks or months of their escapes. Most go back to their old haunts, old tricks and old associates, and soon find themselves back in the big house. It's clear that many of these criminals, while geniuses at outsmarting the authorities while in prison, are not brilliant at figuring out how to do the same on the outside. Their biggest challenge, it would seem, is learning to live in the rather dull and domesticated manner of the typical law-abiding citizen–and who can blame them?

One solution to this dilemma was found by "Gentle Johnny" Ramensky during World War II. A safecracker who had escaped from prison five times, he was contacted by members of British Intelligence who were looking for skilled and daring men to parachute behind enemy lines and steal top secret documents from Axis safes. Ramensky excelled in his new Shadow profession, breaking numerous safes, including some in the HQ's of Goering and Rommel. Despite being set free and winning high praise for his war-time work, after the war Ramensky went back to his old ways, soon landing in prison and making several more escape attempts. Which goes to show that for some men, the Shadow life is the thing, regardless of whether society gives it their stamp of approval or not.

Prison Break is not as detailed as the Shadow War student would like; it's broken into short accounts of each escape, most just a few paragraphs long. For more detailed study, the bibliography has an excellent list of references. This probably isn't the kind of book you want to sit down and read in long stretches; the accounts tend to blur together and the stories become somewhat repetitive, but it makes excellent casual or bathroom reading. Definitely recommended for all students and fans of prison breakology.

You can purchase a copy of Prison Break here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Mandarin Cypher

The Mandarin Cypher is the sixth book in the brilliant "Quiller" series by Elleston Trevor (writing as Adam Hall). Quiller is a "shadow executive" who takes on dangerous missions for a deep black agency within the British government known only as "the Bureau". Quiller is basically a Cold War British ninja: expert martial artist, driver, pilot, scuba diver; adept at secret communications, stealth and spycraft.

In many ways Quiller is the anti-Bond and anti-Helm. Almost monk-like in his pursuit of shadow op perfection, he doesn't gratuitously womanize, drink, or lose his temper; he's always highly technical, introspective and controlled on his assignments. Where James Bond is a stylish playboy, Quiller is an introverted geek; where Matt Helm can be a cowboy and a thug, Quiller is a model of forbearance and professionalism. He's like a spy version of Donald Westlake's "Parker" character: a "grey man" with little personality or personal baggage; all business, totally focused, disciplined and stoic during ops, and absolutely formidable at his chosen profession. The major difference being that Parker is a criminal out entirely for himself, whereas Quiller is a Queen and Bureau man who has to play by other people's rules.

In this installment, Quiller is sent to Hong Kong to investigate the death of a fellow agent in a supposed fishing accident. Quiller quickly finds himself targeted for assassination by a cell of Red Chinese agents and romantically entangled with the beautiful but needy widow of the murdered agent. Quiller learns that things are not as they seem, and something fishy is afoot out in the South China Sea. It's all related to an operation code-named "Mandarin" about which Quiller is being kept in the dark by his controllers in London. After about 125 pages of Hong Kong intrigue that some readers might find a bit tedious, the climactic action sequence begins: Quiller must infiltrate an oil rig in international waters owned by the People's Republic of China and find out what it's up to. This leads to some intense scenes, as Quiller must survive long scuba dives, naval mines, hand-to-hand combat, hostile Chinese forces and bombshell directives from his London controllers. The surprise ending is highly dramatic, if a bit improbable.

As always with this series, the action is tense and realistic, and the stream-of-consciousness calculations of the computer-like Quiller put you right inside the head of the savant-spy. Here's a passage that nicely sums up both the writer's style and Quiller's philosophy of "the edge":
So all you can do is settle for the situation and check every shadow, every sudden movement, and try to make sure there'll be time to duck. And of course ignore the snivelling little organism that's so busy anticipating what it's going to feel like with the top of the spine shot away, why don't you run for cover, trying to make you wonder why the hell you do it, why you have to live like this, you'll never see Moira again if you let them get you , trying to make you give it up when you know bloody well it's all there is in life: to run it so close to the edge that you can see what it's all about.
Having read six or seven Quiller books now, I have to concur with the widely held opinion that it is one of the very best spy fiction series ever written. The Mandarin Cypher is another fine installment in a series that no fan of the genre should miss. Highly recommended for fans of thinking man's spy fiction.

Get a copy of this book here.

Department 17 Entry (warning – slight spoilers):

Title: The Mandarin Cypher
Author: Elleston Trevor
Writing As: Adam Hall
Publication Year: 1975
Category: fiction
Genres: espionage
Op Types: assassination, infiltration, scuba diving, evasion
Plot Elements: oil rig, missiles, submarine
Governments: Great Britain, China
Locales: London, Hong Kong
Series: Quiller
Series #: 6
Plot Synopsis: Quiller is sent to Hong Kong to investigate the death of a fellow agent and finds himself targeted for assassination by a Red Chinese agents and romantically entangled with the agent's widow. Something fishy is afoot in the South China Sea; Quiller must infiltrate a Chinese oil rig, carry out a seemingly impossible mission and get back alive.
Reviews: https://shadowwarjournal.blogspot.com/2020/04/the-mandarin-cypher.html

Friday, April 17, 2020

Department 17 – Shadow-Fiction Research

In the classic spy thriller Six Days of the Condor, protagonist Ronald Malcolm has a shadow-fiction fan's dream job: he works for the "American Literary Historical Society", which is actually a front organization for Section 9, Department 17 of the CIA. Malcolm's job is essentially to read spy and crime novels all day, analyzing them for hidden nuggets of intel or ideas that the Agency might be able to apply in its own operations:
The function of the Society and of Department 17 is to keep track of all espionage and related acts recorded in literature. In other words, the Department reads spy thrillers and murder mysteries. The antics and situations in thousands of volumes of mystery and mayhem are carefully detailed and analyzed in Department 17 files.  ... 
The analysts for the Department keep abreast of the literary field and divide their work basically by mutual consent. Each analyst has areas of expertise, areas usually defined by author. In addition to summarizing plots and methods of all the books, the analysts daily receive a series of specially “sanitized” reports from the Langley complex. The reports contain capsule descriptions of actual events with all names deleted and as few necessary details as possible.
Fact and fiction are compared, and if major correlations occur, the analyst begins a further investigation with a more detailed but still sanitized report. If the correlation still appears strong, the information and reports are passed on for review to a higher classified section of the Department. Somewhere after that the decision is made as to whether the author was guessing and lucky or whether he knew more than he should. If the latter is the case, the author is definitely unlucky, for then a report is filed with the Plans Division for action. The analysts are also expected to compile lists of helpful tips for agents. These lists are forwarded to Plans Division instructors, who are always looking for new tricks.
It's a fascinating, though perhaps fantastical, idea. But regardless of whether such a project would have much real-world intelligence use, it would certainly be a dream resource for the student of shadow-fiction. One could hone in on the precise types of stories one prefers, browsing for sources of ideas about any particular subject of interest. If you wanted to find crime novels featuring prison breaks, research Islamic terrorism in spy fiction, find men's adventure novels set in South America or identify novels featuring ninjas published before 1983, you could quickly get a list of relevant works.

Which begs the question: why not create an open source version of Department 17 – a comprehensive database of spy, thriller, crime, men's adventure, mystery and pulp fiction, broken down by genre, author, op types, plot synopsis, story elements, characters, series, etc.? There are nice sites that catalog science fiction/fantasy stories and comic books, but as far as I know nothing for shadow-fiction genres.

Below are some sample database listings for books recently reviewed on this blog to illustrate the idea:


Title: Hijack
Author: Lionel White
Publication Year: 1969
Category: fiction
Genres: crime, noir
Op Types: heist, skyjacking
Plot Elements: femme fatale, Vietnam vets, alcohol
Locales: USA/Nevada
Plot Synopsis: A money-hungry ex-stewardess seduces an ex-Air Force pilot and tells him about a flight that carries millions of dollars in cash. The pilot assembles a team of misfits to hijack the plane, but the whole plan goes horribly and brutally wrong.
Reviews: https://shadowwarjournal.blogspot.com/2020/04/hijack.html

Title: The Betrayers
Author: Donald Hamilton
Publication Year: 1966
Category: fiction
Genres: espionage, noir
Op Types: assassination, counter-espionage, terrorism
Plot Elements: femme fatale, sailing
Governments: USA, Russia, China
Locales: USA/Hawaii
Series: Matt Helm
Series #: 10
Plot Synopsis: Counter-espionage assassin Matt Helm is sent to Hawaii to stop a traitorous rogue agent who is rumored to be working for the Red Chinese and planning some kind of terrorist operation. There he encounters two beautiful but dangerous female operatives whose allegiances are unclear.
Reviews: https://shadowwarjournal.blogspot.com/2020/03/the-betrayers.html

Title: Breakout
Author: Donald Westlake
Writing As: Richard Stark
Publication Year: 2002
Category: fiction
Genres: crime
Op Types: prison break, heist, fugitive
Locales: USA/Midwest
Series: Parker
Series #: 21
Plot Synopsis: Professional thief Parker is busted, sent to prison and must find a way to escape. He must also find a way to break in and out of an armory loaded with jewels and get away clean.
Reviews: https://shadowwarjournal.blogspot.com/2020/03/breakout.html

Title: Splinter Cell
Author: Raymond Benson
Writing As: David Michaels
Publication Year: 2003
Category: fiction
Genres: espionage, techno-thriller
Op Types: espionage, terrorism, counter-terrorism, sabotage, infiltration, kidnapping
Plot Elements: stealth technology, arms dealing, supergun, Islamic terrorism
Agencies: NSA, Third Echelon, The Shop, The Shadows
Governments: USA, Iraq, Israel
Locales: China/Macau, Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, Israel
Series: Splinter Cell
Series #: 1
Plot Synopsis: "Splinter cell" Sam Fisher, NSA covert operative and master of high tech stealth, is sent to the Middle East to track down the sinister cabal of arms dealers called "the Shop", stop the Islamic terrorist group called "the Shadows" and rescue his kidnapped daughter.
Reviews: https://shadowwarjournal.blogspot.com/2020/03/splinter-cell.html

Title: The Hong Kong Massacre
Author: Joseph Rosenberger
Publication Year: 1988
Category: fiction
Genres: men's adventure, pulp
Op Types: ninjutsu, assassination, infiltration, disguise
Plot Elements: ninjas, organized crime, triads, revenge
Locales: Hong Kong
Series: Shadow Warrior
Series #: 1
Plot Synopsis: "Shadow Warrior" Scott McKenna must avenge the death of a good friend at the hands of a triad gang. The story of how he became a highly skilled ninja is recalled, and his brutal assaults on the triad gang's strongholds are described.
Reviews: https://shadowwarjournal.blogspot.com/2020/03/welcome-to-shadow-war.html


If I can find a simple platform on which to build such a site I might get it going. Hopefully others would see the value and contribute. Spy/crime/men's adventure literature is a rich resource that deserves to be studied by present and future generations; it shouldn't be allowed to fade into oblivion! I will post more about this project as developments warrant.


Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Hijack

I'm fascinated by shadow ops that involve hijackingskyjacking, train robberies, piracy, etc.—so when I ran across the 1969 novel Hijack by Lionel White I was immediately intrigued. The first thing I noticed was the striking cover: the image of a giant upraised pistol next  to the single word "HIJACK" emblazoned in red, with a jet airliner and a couple in erotic embrace in the foreground, is a minor masterpiece of paperback cover design. On the strength of the cover alone I might have bought the book; knowing that the author was Lionel White, one of the old masters of crime noir fiction known particularly for his heist stories—which have been called precursors to the brilliant Parker novels by Donald Westlake—I simply had to have it.

Does the story live up to the cover? Almost. As you can probably guess, it involves the hijacking of an airliner, sparked by the steamy encounter between a beautiful, money-hungry ex-stewardess called "Sis" and an ex-Air Force pilot recently returned from Vietnam nicknamed "Dude". Sis has inside information that a particular route transports millions of dollars in small bills in its cargo hold every month, and she uses her considerable charms to convince Dude to help her get it. So Dude assembles a team and plans an audacious air-heist.

Along the way we learn the backstory of the hijackers, most of whom were 'Nam buddies of the rogue pilot Dude. We also learn more about several of the  VIP passengers; it turns out (rather unrealistically) that on board the ill-fated flight are a French movie star, a top American scientist, a Russian defector, his CIA escort, the airline's majority stockholder and a famous preacher. In standard crime noir fashion, at some point everything goes sideways, as the all-too-flawed characters turn a carefully laid plan into a clusterf*k of foul-ups, betrayals and desperation moves. There's some brutal violence, loose sex, nasty rape and heavy drinking as the various players crack under pressure and revert to their primal instincts. The offbeat ending is slightly anti-climactic and felt a bit rushed, but it's probably as good as any for this offbeat tale.

I'm a little surprised Hollywood never made a film out of this novel. Several of Lionel White's earlier works were made into movies, but maybe by 1969 the 64 year-old author was no longer a hot property. Or maybe a story about skyjackers—in an era when revolutionaries, terrorists, criminals and crazies were hijacking airplanes with alarming frequency—hit too close to home. Apparently Quentin Tarantino is a big White fan; this would make a great Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction-style noir thriller. No matter, though; classic crime paperbacks like this one are an art form of their own and deserve to be read and enjoyed on their own terms. The biggest crime is that this book is so obscure and difficult to find; if you can track it down for a reasonable price (I paid $10), I would advise picking it up. Hijack is recommended for fans of classic crime noir and heist thrillers.


Friday, April 10, 2020

Modern Ninja Warfare

One of my long-time obsessions is ninjutsu—not the ahistorical variety popularized by the likes of Masaaki Hatsumi and Stephen K. Hayes since the 1960s, which turned the ninja into black-gi wearing martial arts enthusiasts who rarely leave the dojo—but the real, historical art of the ancient Japanese shadow warriors. Unfortunately, until about a decade ago, most of the available ninjutsu literature reflected the bogus version of the art popularized by the "ninja boom", and authentic material was almost non-existent in the English language. Fortunately, thanks primarily to Antony Cummins and his translation team, all the major original ninjutsu scrolls have been translated into English so we can now learn about the legendary ninja in their own words.

Cummins' recent publication, Modern Ninja Warfare, is an outstanding addition to this project. Cummins has created something unique: a compendium of ninja skills taken directly from the historical ninjutsu scrolls, accompanied by a discussion of their modern shadow warrior equivalents.

The book starts with a nice overview of who the ninja really were and what they did. We learn that they engaged in the full range of shadow ops, as spies, commandos, scouts, arsonists, assassins, psychological warriors and terrorists. We get a similar overview of the ninja's modern equivalents, the special forces, spies and hackers who engage in the same types of activities. Subsequent chapters compare everything from hand-to-hand fighting techniques to commando raids, secure communications, infiltrating buildings, escape and evasion, surveillance, ambushes, cross-country movement, assassination and torture. There is an entire chapter on spycraft, which was the bread-and-butter of the historical ninja. In one section I found particularly interesting, Cummins notes that the path of the shinobi no mono (ninja) was recognized in their own scrolls as a "horrific path":
Shinobi took part in murder, lies, deceit, scandal, disguise, propaganda, sex, slavery, the killing of innocent bystanders, robbery and all the deeds at the depths of human society. They were the dark side of the samurai "coin," not the antithesis of the samurai themselves.
Shadow warfare has always been a dark and dirty business, and no one knew that better than the ninja!

I also appreciated the last chapter of the book, "The Way of the Mind", which discusses the psychological and spiritual dimensions of shadow warfare. This is an area that is often neglected in the modern literature, but which the ninja of old knew was critical to success. Their very name was derived from the word "nin", which has several connotations, including "stealth", "perseverance" and "forbearance". They knew how to cultivate these qualities, to exploit the mental weakness of others and to use rituals to acquire inner strength. To operate in the shadows; to endure and overcome all hardships; to control emotions and urges; to exploit weakness and use rituals—these are the mental keys to the Way of the Shadows in all ages, whether they are medieval ninja or modern spy-commandos.

Overall, I found the book quite interesting and picked up many new tricks and ideas. It was instructive to see how the principles of the shadow warrior arts haven't changed over the centuries, though the forms have changed to incorporate new technologies and cultures. This isn't a highly detailed military instruction manual, but an overview and primer on the full range of shadow warfare skills and tactics practiced both by the ninja and modern operatives. As such, Modern Ninja Warfare is a worthy addition to the library of any student of ninjutsu or shadow warfare.

Get a copy of the book here.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Death of a Citizen

Death of a Citizen is the first book in the brilliant Matt Helm series by Donald Hamilton. Though categorized with James Bond and other popular spy novels of that era, this is really a classic 1950s noir crime story with a Cold War spy gloss. It has all the elements of that genre: the stylish but deadly femme fatale, the man whose dark past comes back to haunt him, dead bodies, tense chases, lethal twists, brutal betrayals and visceral violenceall told in the hard-boiled, gritty, witty style of the best crime novels of its day.

The story's setup is a compelling one: Matt Helm, who worked as an assassin during World War II for a super-secret but unnamed government agency, finds himself reactivated 15 years later  while he is living a quiet life as a writer/photographer with his wife and three children in New Mexico. Thinking that his brutal days were long behind him, Helm's encounter with the beautiful but lethal Tina, his ex-flame and -colleague in the assassination business, and his discovery of a dead body in his den, awaken his old killer instincts and pull him back into the deadly game of kill or be killed. Helm learns that his old agency is still operating, now targeting America's Cold War enemies, and Helm's unique talents are again in demand. This sets the stage for a fast-paced, exciting narrative, as Helm sets off on the open roads of the Southwest with Tina, reconnects with his old boss at the agency, and is given a new mission to eliminate the enemy agents targeting an important scientist in his area.

Hamilton does a brilliant job describing Helm's re-awakening to the predatory instincts of a professional killerwhich had been dulled by 15 years of domesticated living but are quickly sharpened by the presence of death, sex and danger in the form of a dead girl, sexy Tina and her thuggish partner Loris. Like the best noir novels, this story is all about the dark psychological quirks of the characters, the unexpected plot twists and the moments of intense violencenot the geopolitical backdrop, technological gimmickry or comic book antics of so much spy fiction.

Death of a Citizen is a brilliant start to a series that I intend to read in its entirety. Matt Helm is a very compelling character; what Parker is to the crime genre, Helm is to spy fiction: a stoic, super-tough, no-nonsense man of action who does some nasty things but you can't help rooting for anyway. Highly recommended.

Get a copy of this book here.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief


I always enjoy novels and movies that feature cat burglars who stealthily climb walls, use ropes and grappling hooks, creep along catwalks, bypass alarm systems, pick locks, crack safes, etc. to steal jewels or cash and get away cleanly. But I've often wondered: do such people exist, or are they just an entertaining fiction? The answer is the former, if you believe William Mason's autobiographical account of his exploits as just such a burglar.

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief recounts some of Mason's most memorable heists and narrow escapes, his infiltration of glamorous society, and his double life as a responsible family man by day and a high stakes, high-rise sneak thief by night. I particularly enjoyed the technical details of his exploits, such as how he fashioned home-made grappling hooks by welding together large fish hooks, posed as prospective tenant to get a tour and floor plans of target buildings, carefully studied security cameras to find their blind spots, scaled walls, and the like. Mason's standard M.O. was to get onto roofs from the inside then climb down onto balconies, taking advantage of the fact that people often didn't bother to set their alarms or lock their doors because they never imagined that someone could get to them. He also used clever social engineering to plan his heists, reading high society newspapers and going to events they attended so he could scope out the jewels and learn more about his targets. Mason hit a number of well-known celebrities and tycoons, cleanly making off with millions of dollars worth of jewelry without the authorities having any clues.

What I find fascinating about Mason is the fact that even while he was making a comfortable upper middle class living as a real estate broker, with a wife and children in a good neighborhood, he led this dangerous second life and risked everything for the thrill of committing these crimes. Apparently the buzz and challenge of sneaking into luxury homes, outsmarting security measures and being instantly rewarded with small fortunes in jewelry was too potent a drug for Mason to give up. Once he got the taste for burglary as a young man struggling to make ends meet, it seems that he couldn't stop until the law finally did it for him. This is a common trait we find in shadow operators, whether they are burglars, spies, hitmen or what have you: the real juice is not the money, but the excitement of living a life in the shadows, breaking the laws of daytime society and getting away with it, becoming a kind of shadowy superman who doesn't play by the ordinary rules.

There have probably always been sneak-thiefs like Mason, targeting the fortunes of kings, nobles and merchants. It's inspiring to know that such men can still operate in modern times, and can still profit wildly by their ingenuity, skill, daring, and exploitation of human error.  Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief is highly recommended for anyone interested in real heists and criminal shadow operators.

Get a copy of this book here.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Breakout

Breakout is the 21st book of the "Parker" series, by Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark). If you've never read any Parker novels, I recommend that you start with the first one, The Hunter, and proceed from there. Few books capture the intensity and drama of criminal shadow ops as realistically as these. Parker is a professional thief, but he's no non-violent cat burglar, stealthily infiltrating buildings, cracking safes and getting away cleanly with the loot. He threatens, pistol-whips, beats, binds, gags, and occasionally kills to complete his missions, but always with an almost robotic level of efficiency and cool.

Parker novels are what you might call "criminal procedurals"—they give detailed, realistic accounts of the planning and execution of Parker's heists and associated criminal activity. We learn about the minutia of getaway routes, entrances and exits, guards, escape vehicles, etc. Parker prefers low-tech, direct means to assault his targets, never relying on gadgetry when good old guns, threats and surprise are so much more reliable. But as in real life, nothing ever goes according to plan; much of the fun of these stories is finding out how Parker improvises when an op goes badly wrong or someone crosses him.

Breakout offers a new twist on the Parker formula: this time he has to break out of a facility instead of in—the facility in question being a prison, where he finds himself for the first time since the series began. Parker, being a guy who doesn't take well to involuntary confinement, and being linked to the murder of a prison guard decades ago, immediately starts angling to escape. Recruiting two other inmates and with help from outside, he makes a harrowing but highly believable escape. And that's just part one of this tale. The crew, now free and short of cash, decides to take on a heist that one of them had previously scoped out: breaking into a former armory loaded with jewelry that is as impregnable as the prison they just got out of. The ensuing break-in is as gripping as the break-out; author Stark describes both in such photographic detail that you could swear he has done them himself! There are further escapes, evasions, murders, police procedural work, hostage-taking, and a climactic manhunt for Parker the fugitive. The ending is particularly well done.

After reading five early Parker novels from the 1960s, it's a bit jarring to read about him operating in a 21st century world of cell phones, internet and security cameras. But as always, Parker adapts to his circumstances and relies on the tried-and-true methods of his trade, so it doesn't really affect the narrative. Forty years after the first novel, Westlake is still the master of hard-boiled crime fiction, and Parker is still the master of hard-boiled crime. "Breakout" is a top-notch addition to the best crime series ever written. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of Breakout here.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Splinter Cell


Splinter Cell, the first in a series of novels based on the popular stealth video game, has an  intriguing premise: an ultra-secret NSA division called Third Echelon employs agents called "Splinter Cells" to infiltrate enemy installations, spy, steal, sabotage and assassinate to protect American interests.

The protagonist is Sam Fisher, a highly competent loner who has little apparent personality or life beyond his government work and his Krav Maga practice. Fisher employs an array of impressive gadgetry, including a suit that regulates body temperature, makes no sound and resists bullets, and a device called an OPSAT that did in the early 2000s what smartphones do today, but with high security, global satellite coverage and a direct line to NSA HQ. Fisher is also a master of stealth and shadow warfare—basically a 21st century ninja. He can pick any lock in seconds, scale walls and climb ropes with the best of them, evade capture, blow up buildings and take people out with his bare hands. But therein lies the problem: Fisher is a little too good, and everything comes a little too easy for him. He's like Nick Carter—a superman spy who never seems to have a major mishap or encounter any obstacle he can't overcome.

This first installment concerns the machinations of a SPECTRE-like cabal of arms dealers called the Shop that is targeting Splinter Cells for death, having already murdered two agents and set their sights on Fisher. They are also sponsoring a very nasty Islamic terrorist outfit called "the Shadows" (not to be confused with the group I've blogged about) that is spreading al Qaeda-style mayhem.  Fisher is sent to the Middle East to track both organizations down and destroy their operations. This involves using his stealth skills to infiltrate various offices and bases, gather incriminating information, blow up their assets and take out any bad guys who cross his path. Unfortunately, the Shop ups the ante by kidnapping his daughter, and this really motivates Fisher and puts him hot on their trail.

Author "David Michaels" is actually Raymond Benson, who was the official author of the James Bond series from 1996 to 2003. His writing is perfectly functional but not terribly inspired—he's certainly no Ian Fleming, and Sam Fisher is no James Bond. Benson was the hired writing help here, not the series creator, and it shows. Fans of the video game or Clancy techno-thrillers who are intrigued by the premise may enjoy this book, but I found it all a bit predictable and by the numbers. Splinter Cell offers neither shadow op realism, gripping narrative, interesting characters, nor wild entertainment of the sort you find in classic men's adventure fiction. Give it a pass unless you have nothing better to read.

Buy a copy of Splinter Cell here.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Shadows: Introduction

One of my motivations for starting this blog was to develop an idea that's been brewing in my brain for a while now, which I call simply the Shadows.

What are the Shadows? They are the society of shadow operators, who have been given many names—thieves, assassins, spies, saboteurs, terrorists, ninjas—but share a common mindset, skillset and attitude to life. Shadows operate out of the light, outside the law, in darkness and secrecy, to achieve their goals. They emphasize stealth, skill and deception over brute force and violence.

Shadows don't concern themselves with abstract matters of good and evil, right and wrong, justice, progress or God. The Shadow attitude is that technique trumps ideology, actions speak louder than words, and impeccable skill is its own morality. Nor are Shadows aligned with any particular political faction, ideological cause, social stratum, religious sect or ethnic group. They may be found among criminals and law-enforcers, terrorists and soldiers, cults and corporations, businessmen and bureaucrats, spies and survivalists, security forces and revolutionaries, anarchists and fascists, and everything in between. The Shadows are in a class by themselves, which transcends other allegiances.

The closest historical analogs of the society of Shadows are perhaps the Ninja of feudal Japan, the Ye Ban Tou of imperial China, the Hashashin of medieval Persia, the Thieves Guilds of the Ottoman Empire, and various brotherhoods found among the criminal underworld and covert operations communities to this day. In spirit, the society stretches back to the earliest civilizations, all of whom had thieves, spies and assassins, and before that to our prehistoric ancestors who stealthily stalked prey of both the two- and four-legged varieties.

Shadow Operations

"Shadow operations", or "Shadow ops", are the various missions carried out by Shadows. These range from burglaries, heists and prison breaks to assassinations, spying, scouting, sabotage, disinformation and dirty tricks. The best Shadow ops aren't common knowledge; they are either still secret or are attributed to an accident, a false flag, a patsy, or something else besides the actual perpetrators. Here are a few Shadow ops from history that are common knowledge to illustrate the idea:
Obviously Shadows are not "good guys"; they are generally regarded as villains, rogues, or necessary evils at best. But they are a universal human reality, so perhaps it's time to give them a name, discuss them as a group with a common mentality and set of skills, and give them some respect for living a life of action and daring in a world that all too often resembles a prison planet. I will be exploring these ideas in future blog posts, and possibly in a future book. Enjoy.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Getting Away with Ops: Best Procedures



The following are some best procedures for completing an op without incriminating yourself. This list is culled from a study of shadow ops down through history—heists, capers, spy ops, assassinations, etc. They are lessons learned in the schools of hard knocks, hard time, and short lives. Most ops fail because they violate one or more of these rules. They may seem like common sense, but it's surprising how many professional operatives neglect them, to their lasting regret. Study these procedures until they are second nature so you don't make a mistake when the pressure is on.
  • Dispose of all Evidence. Immediately dispose of all tools, technologies, clothing, packaging and other physical evidence connected to the op when you are done with it. Don’t keep it at your home or place of business. Burn it, put it in a trash compactor, dump it in landfill, throw it in a deep body of water, bury it in a remote area. Make sure that it won’t be found for a long time, if ever.
  • Use Trusted Associates. Only work with highly trusted associates who can be relied upon to keep their mouths shut and not betray you. Preferably all associates should be long-time colleagues, close friends or family members.
  • Use Competent Associates. Only work with smart, competent, experienced associates who won’t botch the op or panic when the pressure is on.
  • Keep Associates to a Minimum. The fewer people involved in an op, the less chance of mistakes and betrayals. Ideally you should work alone.
  • Don’t Incriminate Yourself During Communications. Don’t say anything incriminating via telephone, text message, email or other communications medium. Communicate with co-operatives using code words. Whenever possible, meet them in person, preferably at a location where eavesdropping is difficult, such as a remote rural area.
  • Destroy Your Communications Trail. Dispose of all communication devices and messages linking you to op associates when you are done with them: phones, SIM cards, paper notes, emails, instant messages, etc.
  • Be Anonymous. Don’t attract attention during any stage of an op. Be the “gray man” that no one notices or remembers.
  • Use False Identities. Establish false ID’s so that any paper trail you leave during an op leads to someone else.
  • Leave the Scene. Leave the scene of the op immediately and don’t return. Don't be like Leonardo Notarbartolo, who, after completing one of the biggests heists in history, returned to to the scene of the crime a few days later and got arrested.
  • Leave No Forensic Evidence. Wear gloves, a balaclava and long-sleeved shirt and pants to prevent fingerprints, disguise your face and minimize DNA evidence.
  • Be Untraceable. Don’t drive your own car to or from the op; use a stolen car or one rented under a false identity. Purchase tools, clothing and  supplies with cash; don’t use anything that can be traced to you that you can’t dispose of.
  • Have an Alibi. Make sure someone reliable can testify that you were far from the scene of the op at the time it occurred.

The Betrayers

Matt Helm was America's answer to James Bond: a hard-boiled, no-nonsense killer who dispensed with the goofy gadgets and "shaken not stirred" pretensions and got down to the brutal business of espionage the old-fashioned way: with his knife, gun, wits and fists. An assassin behind enemy lines during World War II, Helm was re-activated 15 years later by an unnamed, ultra-secret agency to start disposing of America's enemies during the height of the Cold War.

The Betrayers, published in 1966, is the the tenth novel in the series, but the first one I've read. It concerns Helm's vacation to Hawaii, which turns into a mission to expose and eliminate a traitorous fellow agent who is suspected of working for the Red Chinese. Along the way, he encounters two beautiful but treacherous women, the allegiances of whom are far from clear. Is beautiful blonde beach girl Jill really an ally out to expose the rogue agent called Monk, or is it an elaborate ruse? Is the sultry brunette society woman Isobel an enemy operative or an independent femme fatale? While he is trying to sort them out (and bed them down), Helm learns of Monk's plot, which involves a transport ship full of American troops visiting Honolulu. There are some nice descriptions of the Hawaiian culture and environment, visceral violence, an intense inter-island sailboard ride, clever ruses, car chases, gun lore, wisecracks, tradecraft, and a final showdown with the Monk. But Hamilton always keeps it real; there is no supervillain in a hollow volcano, seven foot two henchman with steel teeth or nuclear bomb about to blow up a major city. I loved Fleming's James Bond novels when I was younger, but Hamilton's Matt Helm is Cold War spy fiction for adults.

One of the novel's more interesting passages comes during a little rant by Monk near the end. At a time when Russians were considered the great menace to America and the free world, Monk identifies the Chinese as the real threat, in a way that some might consider prescient:
"There's the true enemy, Eric!" he said grimly. "They're arrogant bastards. They think they can use and outsmart anybody. They thought they could use and outsmart me. They figure civilization started with them and will end with them. And unless something's done with them soon, they may be right."
But there isn't much editorializing in this novel. Donald Hamilton writes the way Matt Helm acts: no-nonsense, gritty, witty, fast-moving, direct and to the point. This was a highly enjoyable introduction to the series; I will be reading and reviewing more Helm novels in the near future. Highly recommended for fans of hard-boiled espionage action.

Buy a copy of The Betrayers here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Flawless


One of my favorite subjects of study is "heistology"—the history, art and science of pulling off heists. One of the best books I've read on the subject is Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History, by Scott Selby and Greg Campbell. It is a detailed account of the notorious Antwerp Diamond Heist conducted in 2003, one of the largest robberies in history, worth upwards of one hundred million dollars in diamonds, gold and jewelry.

This is an amazing, riveting story. The robbers, members of the so-called "Turin School" of Italian professional thieves, spent two years planning and carrying out the audacious operation, which was to loot the vault of the Antwerp Diamond Center—a super-secure vault within one of the most thief-proof square miles of real estate on the planet: the Antwerp Diamond District. The leader, a man named Leonardo Notarbartolo, rented an office within the Center, and with the assistance of his specialist team members in Italy, gradually developed workarounds for the vault's security measures right under the guards' noses. They were able to bypass three different alarm systems by ingenious techniques; for example, they defeated the light sensor with a telescoping painter's pole with a styrofoam casing on one end, molded to fit perfectly over the sensor. They also benefited from sloppy security: guards who conveniently kept the vault key in a nearby storage room, and managers who failed to update some of the vault's security systems. But the amount of skill and ingenuity displayed by this gang is rather awe-inspiring, despite one unfortunate failure to dispose of incriminating evidence.

While I'm a big fan of heist novels by the likes of Donald Westlake and Dan Marlowe, nothing beats a true story that reads like a thriller. This was a real mission impossible, conducted with great skill, patience and daring by a modern-day "thieves guild" that shadow operators can't help but admire. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of Flawless here.

Welcome to the Shadow War

Greetings. My nom de guerre is The Nightstalker, I am a student of shadow war, and this is my journal. My interests include: spy/crime/men's adventure fiction, heistology, black ops, assassins, ninjas, prison breaks, survivalism, secret societies, parapolitics, occultism, mind control and dark side philosophy. In this blog I will be reviewing books of interest, reporting on some of my projects and operations, and reflecting on the world from a shadow warrior's perspective. To kick things off, here is my review of a recent read entitled, appropriately enough, "Shadow Warrior #1". Enjoy.

The Hong Kong Massacre (Shadow Warrior #1), by Joseph Rosenberger

At the tail-end of the ninja craze in the late 1980s, the late, great Joseph Rosenberger, author of the incomparable “Death Merchant” series, created the “Shadow Warrior” series, starring 'Shadow Warrior' Scott McKenna. McKenna is essentially Richard Camellion (the Death Merchant) with ninja training: killing machine, master of weapons, stealth and disguise, and mystic warrior with his own code of honor.

Like the Death Merchant novels, Rosenberger loads up the book with technical details. In this case, that means loads of Japanese terminology, ninjutsu techniques and descriptions of ninja weapons. It also means detailed and often amusing descriptions of each kill, complete with the full names of each victim and the particular anatomical deformations they suffer at the hands of the killer-protagonist. It also means references to ninjutsu hokum like kata dan-te, “Dance of the Deadly Hands”, and saimin-jutsu, “Way of the Mind Gate”, that were lifted directly from the writings of ninja LARPer and known lunatic Ashida Kim. But it's all good fun.

Book #1 in the series, The Hong Kong Massacre, concerns the Shadow Warrior's brutal revenge on a a Hong Kong triad gang who killed a close friend. It also recounts the origins of the Shadow Warrior, going back to the fateful day when McKenna, the trust-fund brat son of a diplomat stationed in Japan, calmly informed his parents that he was foregoing college and the Ivy League track to train as a ninja (it was the 1980s, people did things like that).

But the details of the plot are secondary. What matters is they provide a good set-up for maximum ninja mayhem and ultra-violence, sprinkled with Rosenberger's trademark technical details, morbid mysticism, philosophy and humor. The action consists of several set pieces that showcase McKenna's ninja skills of infiltration, disguise, gadgetry and outrageously bold attacks (who but a ninja master could infiltrate buildings full of armed men, kill dozens without firearms and come out unscathed?). If you like ninjas and Death Merchant novels (and what cultured person doesn't?), you're going to love the Shadow Warrior. Recommended for fans of the genre.

Buy a copy of The Hong Kong Massacre here.