The Orpheus Deception by David Stone

How much violence and brutality is too much and how much adds a entertaining sharp edge to a thriller?  This is not an easy question to answer unless you are one of those people on the extremes who enjoys either none at all or an unlimited amount.

It is also tricky because it depends on both the reader’s tastes and the author’s skills. Some authors can make a violent story darkly beautiful while some make the same level of violence seem over-the-top.

As you might have suspected, I bring this up in relation to the David Stone thriller series featuring Micah Dalton.  I reviewed the first book (The Echelon Vendetta); just finished the second book (The Orpheus Deception); and I am planning to tackle The Venetian Judgment soon.

This is an often violent, and at times gruesome, series.  Stone seems to like villains whose souls are twisted beyond recognition and who therefor do some very nasty things.  The hero must both escape being given this treatment, but also stop a larger threat to US national security.

This time it involves some sort of chemical weapon, a stolen tanker, a former colleague sent to the infamous Changi prison in Singapore, and Dalton’s Balkan crime lord nemesis.

Stone manages to pull all these threads together and weave a suspenseful, action filled, and entertaining plot.  I found the second book had a consistent vibe of black humor which I enjoyed but, like many in the genre, it is quiet violent and often strains credibility.  It also barely qualifies as a stand alone work.  If you haven’t read the first book it is difficult to fully enjoy this one.

Further thoughts below.  There are really three issues that negatively impacted my enjoyment:

  1. The aforementioned violence.
  2. The often rambling nature of the story.
  3. The ending was weak.

On #1, I found Stone always walking up to the limit of the violence I would tolerate.  I never found the violence or brutality offensive or so over-the-top I stopped reading.  But on the other hand, much of the violence struck me as unnecessary.

One of the characters, Kiki Lujac, is clearly a brutal sadist who lacks the ability to feel human emotions and so seeks out extremes.  And in some ways he is an interesting side character in the story.  But he also drags the story down when he is hunting Dalton and/or torturing his latest victim.  Stone is careful to tie things into the larger plot but it just adds to the bulkiness of the novel.  Take a few of these type of scenes out and the book is both less violent and a tighter read.

And this leads right into #2.  Stone can’t seem to help filling the plot with side characters and subplots.  The novels sometimes seem almost more like a continuing series of episodes than a traditional novel.  And the second book is busier than the first.

Micah is on the run from the CIA because of the events that ended the first book when he is given a chance to get back in their good graces by taking on a rescue operation.  And it just so happens that this case connects both with a larger threat to the US but also to his connection with the Serbian mob and the Italian Carabinieri.  So you have a series of events playing out in Italy, Serbia, Singapore, and the United States.

But Stone keeps adding things.  Micah returns to Italy to be with Cora and gets nearly fatally stabbed.  He also has a dream in which he converses with the Ghost of Porter Naumann which factored heavily into the first book.  Dalton and his colleague also have a run-in with the authorities in Singapore that seems convoluted and almost unrelated to the plot.  A particularly brutal scene in the Gulf of India is also only tangentially related to the plot. And the Kiki character is always dropped in for a few scenes weather it moves the plot forward or not.  Get into trouble, barely escape with your life – rinse and repeat.

As I said, Stone does a pretty good job of tying all of this together; and I did find the action entertaining (and one of the side stories featuring a young NSA monitor was very well done). But if you like tight and fast paced thrillers this episodic nature might turn you off.  It has more of the feel of a longer series where pace is sometimes sacrificed for side characters and stories. (And Stone hasn’t lost his love for descriptive passages of the land and cityscapes the characters encounter around the word.) Its not like 460 pages (in the hardcover) is an epic tome, but it has a density that makes it seem long (at least it did to me).

And appropriately at last, we come to the ending.  The mystery of the ship is the unifying thread for the entire story; it is what ties everything together and provides the climax.  And the tension really builds toward a conclusion on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago.

But the conclusion is rather anti-climatic.  Stone has set up the twist that resolves the ending earlier in the story so it isn’t confusing or disjointed but it just falls a bit flat.  After all of the heroic and death defying action Dalton goes through the ending lacks the kick you would like.

One thing that I found made this book more enjoyable, however, was the sense of humor.  I think Stone’s writing is getting better.  This book has a sharp wit – a sort of biting gallows humor – that I liked.

I also found it interesting that Stone’s perspective seems more attuned to a conservative political outlook.  There are various jibes and quips that wouldn’t seem natural coming from a liberal author.  Not surprisingly, PW took a swipe at the “flag-waving patriotism” of the book.  Sheesh, heaven forbid the book not explore the Nazification of the Bush years.  PW also called it a “testosterone filled thriller.”  That is probably more fair.

All in all, the series is interesting and enteratining enough to keep me coming back for more.  It might not be to everyone’s tastes, but for the most part it comes together.   So if you like thrillers with an edge of violence and dark wit then check out David Stone and Micah Dalton.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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