Jim Geraghty Returns with Another Dangerous Clique Novel

“Ripped from the headlines” plot with Geraghty’s sense of humor makes this a quick read.



When I went to post my review of Jim Geraghty’s latest book, Hunting Four Horseman, on Goodreads I was again cursing the lack of half stars (although, does a half star really mean a lot?) and wrestling with judging a book by the genre it is or the appeal of that genre to you personally…

Which is to say I enjoyed the second Dangerous Clique book but realized these books really aren’t my prefered genre or style within the genre.

Having known Jim for some time, and appreciating his writing, I wanted to buy and read his novels. And they are full of his research, knowledge and sense of humor, which is why I enjoyed them.

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Between Two Scorpions by Jim Geraghty

I have a basic policy of reading and reviewing books by friends or acquaintances; even if only the friendship is an online one.  Today, I realized that last year I read a book by a longtime friend and never reviewed it.  In my defense, last year I started a new job, bought a house, and moved to a new town. But still I felt bad when this came to mind today, so I decided to rectify my error.

I have known Jim Geraghty for quite a while and have even met him in person.  We go way back into the golden age of blogging.  Jim is an excellent journalist and has really established a reputation during the pandemic as a voice of reason and information.  If you are interested in politics/public affairs I recommend The Morning Jolt.

So when Jim published Between Two Scorpions I grabbed a copy and read it.

Between Two Scorpions Book Cover
Between Two Scorpions A Dangerous Clique Thriller Discus Books Kindle 305 Amazon

A long dormant CIA asset emerges from hiding to request a meeting with his former handler, the beautiful, enigmatic intelligence operative Katrina Leonidivna. She’s skeptical that the source, a shady arms dealer, is on the level. But when Katrina barely escapes with her life after an explosion rips through the café where they met, she’s forced to take his tip seriously. Alongside her husband, Alec Flanagan, and a rogue crew of covert agents from every corner of the intelligence community, Katrina races around the globe to uncover the truth.

What this dangerous clique of operatives discover is a plot that could rip America apart from the inside. A plot that pits neighbors against one another and turns everyone into a potential threat. A plot that could make anyone take up arms against their own country. A plot that Katrina, Alec, and the rest of their crew have to stop before it’s too late. But when everyone is a suspect, no one is safe and the entire nation is under suspicion. Hot on the trail of a terror cell capable of turning anyone—and everyone—into a deranged killer, only this dangerous clique of spies has a chance to stop the terrorists from weaponizing America’s greatest asset—freedom.

 

As long as we are confessing, I also failed to read Jim’s novel The Weed Agency so this is my first experience with his fiction, having read his journalism near daily for years.

I don’t think I will hurt Jim’s feeling by saying BTS has some elements common to new fiction authors and first books in a series.  Despite the explosive start, literally, it takes awhile for the book to get going and not all of the characters are all that flushed out. This is also just part of the genre, however, as I have noted when reading books from book-a-year type established authors.  There is always a tension between action and color and character development.

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The Names of the Dead by Kevin Wignall

I am a long time reader of Kevin Wignall going back to 2004 and People Die.  Over the years he has explored a number of genres and categories and I have enjoyed them to varying degrees.  His most recent novel, The Names of the Dead, was released today and it felt like a return to “classic” Wignall to me.

Publishers description:

The Names of the Dead coverFormer CIA officer James ‘Wes’ Wesley paid the ultimate price for his patriotism when he was locked up in a French jail for an anti-terror operation gone wrong—abandoned by the Agency he served, shunned by his colleagues and friends, cut off from his family.

Now he is shattered by the news that his ex-wife, Rachel, a State Department analyst, has been killed in a terrorist attack in Spain. He also discovers that his young son, Ethan, is missing. But Wes didn’t know he had a son—until now.

Why was Rachel in Spain? And why did she keep his son secret from him?

Granted early release, Wes takes flight across Europe to search for the truth and exact his revenge. But can he catch the spies who betrayed him before they track him down? In order to find the answers and save his son, Wes realises he must confront the dark secrets in his own past—before it’s too late.

I was lucky enough to receive a review copy from NetGalley and found myself right back in the world and characters and situations of moral ambiguity, tension and violence.

Here is an exchange in a quick Q&A I did with Kevin in 2008:

I wrote that Conrad Hirst, as most of your books, was an exploration of identity, the nature of morality, and the dangers of self-deception. Is that fair? Accurate?

Yes to both. I’m interested in the fault lines between who we think we are and how others see us. And one of the inherent premises of all my work is that we live in a time of fluid morality, a time in which people are drawing their own boundaries, so I think it’s interesting to explore how people deal with that process, particularly people on the edges of society.

Well, “an exploration of identity, the nature of morality, and the dangers of self-deception” is a pretty good description of The Names of the Dead.  As with most Wignall novels there are a couple of threads.

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The Middleman by Olen Steinhauer

Perhaps I should get the disclosures out of the way.  I’ve been a fan of Olen Steinhauer since I stumbled upon Bridge of Sighs in 2005.  I have interviewed him a couple of times, and have even started watching the TV show he created and produces, Berlin Station (by purchasing it on Amazon because I didn’t have Epix, I might add).

So I was excited when I found out he had a novel, The Middleman, coming out this summer.  I didn’t want to read it too far from pub day because then you either have to write your review and hold it until the publication day is closer or you write the review some, potentially significant, time after you read it and it feels disconnected.  So I held off until closer to the announced pub date and took it on vacation with me so I could have large chunks of time to read it.  Good decision in that I really enjoyed it.  But, I forgot how bad I am at managing my time and so here it is past the publication date and I haven’t posted a review.

Caveats, disclosures and confessions aside, I enjoyed The Middleman and found myself furtively reading it trying to find out what happens in the end.  I read it late into the night and got up and went out onto the waterside deck and finished it.  (And who should appear at the end but Milo Weaver!  Now I want to go back and re-read that series.)

I’m not going offer a formal review (you’re shocked I know) but let me tell you what I liked and deal with some criticisms I have come across. (For the basic plot or teaser, see the Amazon widget below the post)

I really enjoyed how Steinhauer approaches the issues from a variety of perspectives.  You have leaders within the Massive Brigade, you have “everyday people” who join up with the group and its leaders, you have FBI secret agents working inside the group and you have the FBI agent working to stop them.

The book takes you through a political and cultural moment when revolution seems in the air; when tensions are high and violence seems imminent.  It offers you a chance to imagine what a historical moment like this might look and feel like from a variety of perspectives.

And of course, as even the novel’s detractors will admit, Steinhauer is a master with words and prose.  It may be in the thriller genre (more on that later) but it is with literary skill that Steinhauer writes.

Now, criticisms and problems.  The first issue is that the back cover of the review copy I received blares:

DEAR 2018,

YOU HAVE

YOUR

THRILLER

So what is a thriller?  Let’s be lazy and use WikiPedia:

Thrillers generally keep the audience on the “edge of their seats” as the plot builds towards a climax. The cover-up of important information is a common element. Literary devices such as red herrings, plot twists, and cliffhangers are used extensively. A thriller is usually a villain-driven plot, whereby he or she presents obstacles that the protagonist must overcome.

Now, you will recognize elements of this definition in The Middleman.  But it didn’t strike me as a “keep you on the edge of your seats” type story.  Suspense? Sure.  Cover-ups and plot twists?  Yes, but it doesn’t have the fast paced, race to the finish type style from start to finish.  Again, it has more of a literary approach, which I very much enjoyed, but some people noted/complained about that in places like Goodreads and Amazon.

What about the “proffesional” reviewers?  Here is Publishers Weekly:

Steinhauer has captured a very contemporary, very American angst—“people are going to have to pull a trigger, just to be heard”—but the book’s muddled second half will leave many readers frustrated because the polarities aren’t that clear. Rachel Proulx, an earnest FBI agent, is obviously one of the good guys, but the ostensible bad guys are less well-delineated—and the denouement is unsatisfying. Steinhauer fans will hope for a return to form next time.

This gets to the villian driven plot part noted above.  There really isn’t a villian per se.  As I said, Steinhauer attempts to offer a variety of perspectives and personalities caught up in the events.  It isn’t clear who exactly the bad guys are and who the good guys are; except perhaps the FBI leadership and one agent in particular.

I think it is safe to say that Steinhauer has a left-leaning bent (we know the election threw a monkey wrench in his plans for this novel and caused him to reconsider his approach) and he portrays the Massive Brigade, or at least elements of it, sympathetically.  He even seems understanding of the temptation to violence.  But in the end, violence leads not to solutions but the undermining of the very values the protestors claim to represent.

Kirkus touches on another element of this potential problem:

Steinhauer (All the Old Knives, 2015, etc.) is a veteran, a real pro; the issues raised in this well-paced thriller are serious and timely, and the characters are believable and likable. But the targets of the Brigade, corporate conspiracy and the protection of the rich from public scrutiny, never quite reach a viscerally threatening level, and the individuals who conspire to preserve the status quo seem merely bureaucratically venal.

A professional and entertaining thriller a little short on menace.

If the Massive Brigade isn’t the villain, the corporate oligarchs and the politicians who protect them are sort of villains off stage.  But as Kirkus notes, this makes them shadowy and vague rather menacing and sharp.

It feels like the classic Cold War espionage style: a place where there are few black and whites and instead mostly grays.  Rachel Proulx assumes she is on the side of the good guys until events force her to reassess her perspective.  An undercover agent inside the Massive Brigade, Kevin Moore, is also forced to consider not only how far he will go to infiltrate the group but whose side he is really on.

Scott Turow in a featured review in the New York Times gets at the pros and cons of this approach:

“The Middleman” is smart and entertaining and consistently intriguing, clipping along in brief chapters, somewhat reminiscent of the novels of James Patterson, and often animated by lovely, spare descriptive writing. (“They returned to I-80, and as they progressed, Kevin watched the unraveling of civilization. After Rocklin the landscape flattened, speckled with burned yellow grass and low trees. … Eventually, they got off of 80 … to where humans had given up trying to control the land at all.”) Yet because the premise of “The Middleman” is so audacious and because its point of view is fragmented, the novel doesn’t fully exhibit the propulsive force of some of Steinhauer’s spy fiction.

What makes up for that is the neat feat of asking serious political questions without burdening the suspense. In an era of rising income inequality, of unlimited corporate spending on campaign messaging that allows the richest forces in our society to gain unprecedented political power, of voters left and right rallying to outcries about a corrupt system and Washington as a swamp in search of a drain, why can no unity be forged between the viewers of Fox News and MSNBC, who instead prefer mutual vilification? Like the rest of us, Steinhauer is better at asking questions than providing answers.

That was my reaction as well.  Did everything come together perfectly?  No. I am still not sure I understand the ending with Milo Weaver.  Was it a hold on to your pants type of ride from the opening lines?  No, but I neither expected that or needed it to be entertained. I just enjoyed the way Steinhauer explored what Turow calls the audacious premise — a mass popular revolt against corporate power.  I don’t exactly share his politics but am a big fan of his writing.

If, like me, you prefer your thrillers with a literary touch,even if that means a little less pace and action, you will enjoy The Middleman.  Even if you disagree, I bet it will make you think about the world we live in and what might lie in the future.

 

The Wild Inside by Jamey Bradbury

Jamey Bradbury’s debut novel, The Wild Inside, is a coming-of-age story that highlights the many issues young adults have as they try to find their way in the world.

Bradbury showcases many things that I know little or nothing about – teenage girls, Alaskan outback, dog racing and the Iditarod. But, despite my ignorance on these subjects, Bradbury makes the story engaging and thrilling. She sucks the reader in with the heroine’s (Tracy) actions.  She captures the confusion that I am sure many teenagers feel about their lives and those around them.

Bradbury skillfully weaves Tracy’s teenage angst amidst a psychological thriller – who attacked Tracy and what he wants. The psychological thriller element adds a dark and brooding undertone throughout the book – even in the more lighthearted moments.

Bradbury does well developing the characters. Tracy and Jesse are two complex characters that have many sides to their personalities. The pain and loss that Tracy and her dad and brother suffer when their mom and wife dies unexpectedly is real and feels true. They do not know how to deal with her loss and what their new roles are in the family.

The novel includes several turns in the plot, especially one big one at the end.

 

A Fragile Thing by Kevin Wignall

Note: this has been edited. I hit publish a little too quickly and wanted to add a little more background and context.

I have been a fan of Kevin Wignall for some time (I think my first review was over 13 years ago).  And you would think I would not be disturbed by his approach at this point (I mention it in every review).  But I seem to have been tripped up once more by his latest work, A Fragile Thing.

It is basically the story of Max Emerson, the son of a wealthy expat family living in Europe parents in Switzerland, sister in Lyon, etc.).  But Max’s growing fortune comes from investing, and laundering, the money of international criminals and oligarchs.  Despite his wealth, there are clouds on the horizon.  His family has ostracized him, the FBI is looking into his past, and hackers are poking around his business.  Soon it seems like the secrets of his past, and as his parents secrets are revealed, are going to upend and unravel his life.

I finished reading it in June and posted this at Goodreads at the time as an initial response/reaction:

Hmm, not sure how I feel about this one. Some interesting elements and characters but left me kind of confused at the end. Almost felt like book one in a series where the characters are introduced but there is a lot left to flush out. Ending felt abrupt. Still mulling it.

When I realized it was released today and I needed to post my thoughts, I went back to the book and tried to wrestle with my ambiguity.  I enjoyed reading it but something just didn’t settle right; I was unsatisfied in some way.  After thinking about it, I think I didn’t like the book as much as I normally do Wignall’s writing for two reasons:

  1. It bugged me that the main character was a man comfortable using mobsters and other unsavory characters (something of an understatement) to gain fabulous wealth.  And was comfortable having people killed and killing people himself.  He seems cold, cut off and rather arrogant.  I just really didn’t like him.
  2. The book read almost as a series of vignettes that ended somewhat abruptly with a number of loose ends tied up. My first reaction to the book being finished was huh? It left me unsatisfied.

The second point could be more related to my reading it in fits and starts on my Kindle before bed. I might have struggled to get into it because I was reading for only a few minutes at a time but then it seemed like just when I got into it and the action picked up it was over.

The first issue, however, is just something you have to deal with when you read Wignall.  As I noted in my review of Who is Conrad Hirst?:

If there is something that makes me uncomfortable about Wignall’s work it has always been what I take to be his moral ambiguity.  Wignall doesn’t reflect a moral equivalence like some Cold War spy novelists – the idea that America and the Soviets were equally power hunger and willing to kill for their cause – so much as an absence of clear right or wrong.  Each individual has to define what is right and wrong for themselves.  The individualism/relativism is strong but it sometimes feels darker; there is almost a touch of nihilism involved.

Does moving that approach from hit men to wealthy investor/businessman make it worse somehow? I don’t know, but I think that underlying perspective still rubs me the wrong way.

All that said, I did enjoy reading A Fragile Thing.  I thought the plot hook was interesting and kicked the book off with a sense of tension and mystery.  And  there is some deft character building and plotting throughout. Max and his employees and contacts; his relationship with his family and the backstory of his parents; and his self-exploration about his lack of relationships and friends outside his business are well done and interesting in many ways.

There is a building suspense as the pressure mounts and the secrets are revealed. The reader is thinking: “How is Max going to deal with the multiple thread in his life that seem to be coming undone?”  And Wignall answers this question with some twists and turns.

But I have to say, I just didn’t like Max Emerson and in some way probably wanted him to fail.  But as I like to say, your mileage may vary … ;-)

 

The Child by Fiona Barton

I didn’t read The Widow by Fiona Barton, which was apparently an international best seller, but the teaser for her second book, The Child, intrigued me:

While razing an old neighborhood, construction workers make a grisly discovery at the building site: the remains of a baby buried years earlier. Thrown by the ongoing changes at her newspaper—where hastily written online content is increasingly valued over long-format investigative journalism, and layoffs loom—reporter Kate thinks finding the truth behind the baby’s story will put her byline back on the front page. Digging into the history of the working class neighborhood where the baby was found, Kate soon finds herself entangled in the lives of two women, Emma and Angela, whose lives and long-kept secrets are upended the discovery of the child. The story is told through the alternating perspectives of each woman, as their search for answers sets them on a shocking collision course.

So I agreed to participate in the blog tour and offer my thoughts. I grabbed the book on NetGalley and dove in.

I found it to be a mostly well done psychological thriller/mystery with a clever hook.  But I am wondering if it was just not my style.  A little too much drama and perhaps the dark subject matter made it slow going at times.

Plus, I found a lot of the characters unlikable and the early setup of the story a little slow. To be fair, as the mystery unraveled it picked up speed and there was definitely tension and excitement as it drove to its conclusion.  It was interesting enough to keep me reading but it just never switched gears and sucked me in.

At the risk of being accused of sexism or gender stereotypes (or whatever term is used for this particular sin these days), let me also note that there is likely a bit of an extra appeal to women due to the themes of motherhood, mother-daughter relationships, and the role of women in relationships and family, etc. If those themes and roles interest you, there is likely a great deal more emotional punch to the story.

I do think the character of Kate Waters gets stronger as the book develops.  I enjoyed her sense of humor and her often emotional reactions combined with, or perhaps driven by, her dedication to her career and desire to again break a big story.

Publishers Weekly notes the slow start but likes the finish:

Readers patient with the relatively slow initial pace until the intertwining stories gain momentum will be rewarded with startling twists—and a stunning, emotionally satisfying conclusion. Author tour.

Kirkus notes the melodrama:

Barton flirts with melodrama at times but pulls back and allows her characters to develop into fully realized, deeply scarred women whose wounds aren’t always visible.  This is as much a why-dunit as a whodunit, with the real question being whether it’s possible to heal and live with the truth after hiding behind a lie for so long.

Marry Cadden at USA Today was a big fan:

In addition to being a page-turning whodunit, The Child is also a subtle exploration of the relationships between mothers and their children, their bonds and battles. What makes a good mother? When it comes to maternal love, is there a fine line between helping and hindering?

Barton again weaves a tale that keeps us on our toes. A novel that is both fast-paced and thought-provoking, it keeps the reader guessing right to the end. The Child truly is the best of both worlds.

Maureen Corrigan at the Washington Post was a bit more harsh that I was:

“The Child” is a middling and much-too-long suspense story that would have benefited from a ruthless red-pencil. As she did in “The Widow,” Barton relies on multiple points of view to tell (and retell) the larger story of the “Building Site Baby” as the unidentified infant comes to be known. Three other female characters get drawn into this story by learning about that same news item that piqued Kate’s curiosity.

[…]

Figuring out how all these women are connected — to each other and to the unidentified infant — is the hypothetical draw of this kind of fragmented, multi-perspective type of storytelling. I say “hypothetical draw,” because “The Child” is more tedious than tense. Characters chew over the same events from chapter to chapter until they’re as worn out as a stick of used Trident; even when the final revelation seems undeniably clear to readers, it takes Barton a good 80 pages or so to wrap things up. “The Child” isn’t a terrible novel; it’s simply much too much of a just okay one.

If you like the psychological drama of the women, the internal monologues if you will, I think you would enjoy The Child.  This seems like a great beach read for example. But if this style and the themes noted are not your preference than it might not live up to its hype.  Alas, I can’t tell you if reading The Widow makes the second book better or whether the expectations are lessened by not having read it.

 

 

All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

So what could finally pull me out of my book reviewing/blogging doldrums? A new book by Olen Steinhauer of course.

All the Old Knives came out earlier this week and I finally got my hands on a copy and started reading immediately:

All the Old KnivesSix years ago in Vienna, terrorists took over a hundred hostages, and the rescue attempt went terribly wrong. The CIA’s Vienna station was witness to this tragedy, gathering intel from its sources during those tense hours, assimilating facts from the ground and from an agent on the inside. So when it all went wrong, the question had to be asked: Had their agent been compromised, and how?

Two of the CIA’s case officers in Vienna, Henry Pelham and Celia Harrison, were lovers at the time, and on the night of the hostage crisis Celia decided she’d had enough. She left the agency, married and had children, and is now living an ordinary life in the idyllic town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Henry is still a case officer in Vienna, and has traveled to California to see her one more time, to relive the past, maybe, or to put it behind him once and for all.

But neither of them can forget that long-ago question: Had their agent been compromised? If so, how? Each also wonders what role tonight’s dinner companion might have played in the way the tragedy unfolded six years ago.

The hook, in case the above doesn’t make it clear, is that almost the entire book takes place at a restaraunt with the two characters eating dinner (the book opens with Henry traveling to the rendezvous).  Flashbacks take us back in time to the fateful events in Vienna and other key moments.

The chapters alternate between Henry and Celia. And as the conversation deepens, and the backstory plays out, details are revealed and the tension rises. But each time you try to get a character, or the truth, pinned down, Steinhauer throws in a twist or wrinkle.

[What follows includes some discussion that might viewed as spoilery so read on with that in mind]

All the while he is painting a picture of both the mental state, and perspective, of Henry and Celia and the history that led them both to the table.  Henry who still lives in the high stakes and pressurized world of deception and complicated layers that is the CIA.  Celia escaped that world to live in what, on the surface, is its polar opposite (upper class family life on the Central California coast and the intense truth of motherhood).

Both characters morph and change as the story pushes toward its climax.  Initially, Henry seems the tired spy seeking to wrap up an ugly case so it doesn’t come back to haunt him later. The wrinkle being the involvement of his one-time lover; perhaps his one true love.  Celia at first appears only as a mystery; someone who has managed to truly escape the spy world and build a different life.

But as the conversation continues it becomes clear that Celia is more formidable, and deeper, than the reader or Henry might have expected.  And Henry seems weaker, less sure footed, and the challenge of his mission greater.

In fact, I was slightly annoyed by Henry’s odd, rather dark obsession with Celia and the way he describes it. But by the end I understood where it came from; it made sense given the history.

The book is less than 300 pages and it reads fast. The last 80 pages really crank up the tension and as the endgame comes into view, you are furtively reading trying to untangle the knots of lies and hidden truths.

I have to admit I felt a little foolish because I didn’t see a lot of the twists and turns coming.  As the puzzle pieces began to click into place in the final section, you think “Of course! it all makes sense” even though you didn’t see it until after the fact (or at least I didn’t).

The tables turn and suddenly everything looks different; what led to that moment and what will follow.  Up to that point much of the story was puzzles, riddles and the dance of questions and veiled answers.  The reader is sifting the history, evaluating the narrators, trying to makes sense of the motivations and the potential for self-deception.  But then as the climax approaches there is a brutal honesty; a cold bluntness belied by the nonchalantness of some of the actors involved.

And the ending comes swift and clean like the cut of a sharp knife. It leaves you with a wry smile and an appreciation for what Steinhauer has pulled off. Damn, you say to yourself (or at least I did).

Readers of this blog know that I am a fan of Steinhauer’s work. I have enjoyed every single one of this novels. I have enjoyed each new style and perspective he has taken on (from the Cold War novels to The Tourist series and his latest book).

When I was enjoying the Cold War series it was about wanting a bigger audience for his writing but at the same time a quiet enjoyment from knowing a great writer that hadn’t yet achieved much fame.

When All the Old Knives was released I joked with Olen on Facebook that it was getting to the point where I would have to start claiming that I had been a fan when he was a true artist who had not yet sold out to commercial fiction (like music people did with REM in college).

Because he has reached the big time.  The reviewers have caught on to the skill and intellect he brings to his craft; how he blends the entertainment and enjoyment of spycraft and thrillers with literary depth and prose.

Four star reviews are the norm now and you don’t have to hunt through the bookstore to find his books anymore.  Olen Steinhauer is well on its way to being a recognized name; if it isn’t one already.

All the Old Knives is a great read. Taut, fast-paced, and full of suspense and intrigue. It has the quintessential Steinhauer exploration of the human psyche and the espionage world as a stage for asking questions about truth and deception; about the way lies warp and change our relationships and our own self-conception.

But it is different than both his Cold War historical novels and his Tourist series.  Which is another thing that makes Olen such a treat: his willingness to experiment and change as a writer.  Setting an espionage thriller almost entirely around a dinner table was a risk but Steinhauer pulled it off with wit and style.

I think this is a book that would be enjoyable to read again. The first time you can get caught up racing to the end to find out what happens and maybe miss clues and facets along the way.  On the second read you can slow down and savor the details and any pieces you might have missed along the way.

If for some ridiculous reason you haven’t read Steinhauer yet, grab All the Old Knives and get started. Then work your way through the back list. You won’t regret it.