The Moses Stone

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I don’t know if it’s officially a separate genre, but there are quite a lot of thrillers that chronicle the adventures of people searching for (possibly non-existent) ancient artifacts.  Sometimes the premise is that they are real, and will change the course of history if they are found.  In every case, they provide a powerful motive for epic clashes between good guys and bad guys.

The Moses Stone, published by James Becker in 2009, is one of these stories that takes a more measured view.  The Moses stone of the title, the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, is probably only an ancient copy (it’s written in old Aramaic).  Maybe that’s why it has a only a very minor supernatural power – when uncovered after two thousand years, it’s dust free.  That seems like a bit of a let down, more suited to the daydreams of a tired housewife than to such a unique religious artifact.

It’s an entertaining plot.  The good guys are a British policeman who becomes involved when a couple of British tourists are murdered in Morocco, and his archeologist ex wife.  The Israeli Mossad is on their side but bloodthirsty Arab and British bad guys are also looking for the prize.

However, if you would like an even more exciting true story, read The Gold of Exodus, a 1998 book by Howard Blum.  This chronicles the adventures of two bona fide nuts (used here as a term of respect and admiration) who become obsessed with finding said gold and follow the trail wherever it leads them, finally sneaking into a Saudi Arabian army base.  They didn’t find the gold, but at least they survived.

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The Orphan X Series

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I have a new favorite thriller series.  It’s Greg Hurwitz’s set of three (and counting) thrillers that began with Orphan X, continued with The Nowhere Man, and keeps sizzling along with Hellbent, published in 2018.  The premise is that a secret US defense department program selected orphan children with outstanding talents to train as assassins.  Their training included everything from hand-to-hand combat to sharpshooting, and from languages to computer hacking.  They were set up with enough money for any possible contingency and sent out with only one contact to provide assignments.  If ever caught no official source would acknowledge them, and since they had no families to start with, no one would miss them if they didn’t survive.

Orphan X is a special case – the man who trains him is a childless widower who begins to think of him as his son, and the orphan, who never knew a parent or caring adult, loves him in return.  When the series begins, the Orphan program is already unraveling and the Ophans are being hunted down.  Orphan X was the best of them and is thought to know too much to leave alive.

How’s that for a story idea?

Hurwitz divides his killers into two types.  There are psychopaths who kill indiscriminately, not only their assigned target, but also anyone who gets in the way.  And there are others who are willing to kill as soldiers for their country but take care to avoid collateral damage.

Orphan X is a moral assassin.  The man in charge of killing him is not.  An interesting secondary character is Orphan V, the only female and one of the group hunting X.  (The Orphans do have names, by the way, but I won’t bother to list them here).  When V first appears we learn that she carries a supply of hydrofluoric acid for dissolving bodies and doesn’t seem concerned that she and the remaining operatives are apparently being used to get rid of internal political opponents of the US government.  But we find out that she does have a problem with collateral damage.  At the end of Hellbent she seems to decide that she’s had enough.  Will she and X become mates in the next book?  I can hardly wait to find out.

 

 

City of Endless Night

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I enjoyed reading City of Endless Night, the latest Preston and Child mystery featuring FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast, but I’m not sure it lived up to the claim by one reviewer that it’s the best of the series, which now numbers seventeen books.

The authors have a winning formula that continues to entertain.  They have an attractive and interesting protagonist in agent Pendergast.  The characters in the supporting cast are well developed, from police detective Vincent D’Agosta, who works with Pendergast, to annoying reporter Bryce Harriman.  They provide detailed settings, in this case locations in and around New York City.  There is plenty of extreme action and suspense.

But there are pitfalls to writing so many books with the same framework, and one of them is the strain on originality.  There is a religious fanatic in this book who provides a similar subplot to one previously used, and is even neutralized by the same policewoman.  The tendency for anyone who is connected to Pendergast to die a gruesome death has reached an appalling level.   And although the agent is an almost-super hero, the ploy that saves him in his final confrontation with the villain is too far fetched even for him.

There is clearly going to be another book in the series, and I look forward to finding out if there are any strange plot permutations left in Preston and Child’s bag of tricks.

I’m worried about Pendergast

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I read one of the Preston and Child thrillers featuring FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast some time ago, but after picking up another one recently I found myself with a minor addiction to the strange but fascinating detective and went on to read most of the series, which after the latest release two days ago numbers seventeen books.

Preston and Child have done amazingly well with this character, who is extreme in appearance (very tall and very fair), intellect, and personality (the manner of a very old fashioned southern gentleman).  They clearly feel at home with him by now, and as the series advances they put him through his paces with increasing confidence.

I’m sure I’ll order the latest book, but I’m afraid that Pendergast might be slipping over the edge from being just unbelievable enough to be impressive to becoming a caricature.  In the preview to the new book, the detective called to a murder site at night spots an intruder crouching near the back fence of the property.  This turns out to be his old friend Pendergast, officially sent by the FBI to join the investigation.  Why didn’t he come in at the front and present himself in the normal way?  The reply is that since he has to take part in what he expects to be an uninteresting case, he may as well make an entrance.  What??  A forty-something year old (at least) man just feels like scaling a fence in the dark and perhaps being shot by the police?  This isn’t an eccentric character, this is a ridiculous weirdo.

I’m hoping for the best, but I’m worried.  It must be hard to stay within the lines and not let an unusual character go spiraling off into the wild blue yonder.

Shame on You, Preston and Child!

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Preston and Child write terrific thrillers.  Special agent Aloysius Pendergast is a fascinating hero who has appropriately been  compared to Sherlock Holmes.  But no writer, and especially writers talented enough to manage without sleazy tricks, should corrupt the biography of real people to further a plot.

In Fever Dream they piggy-back on the fame of painter and ornithologist John James Audubon in the service of a plot about a creativity-enhancing form of bird flu.  Now many thousands of readers, even if they realize that the real Audubon was naturally a supremely talented and accomplished artist and naturalist, wont be able to help associating him with a strange story of illness and insanity.  Shame on you, Preston and Child!

I never quite understood why fiction writers employ researchers, since it seemed to me that tracking down and learning about places, history, etc. as background to a story is fun.  I caught a glimmer of the place of research assistance through the Pendergast series.  The agent knows everything there is to know about fine wines, clothes, art, and furnishings, not to mention literature, music, and ancient languages.  Either Preston and Child are two of the world’s most amazing Renaissance men or they employ a whole team of researchers.

The Spy House

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The Spy House, published by Matthew Dunn in 2015, is a competently written thriller and one of the most annoying books I’ve ever read.  I’m sure I’ve read some other Dunn thrillers featuring joint MI6 and CIA agent Will Cochrane, but this one made more of an impression because the plot is over-the-top ridiculous and Dunn, according to the book’s cover, is a former MI6 officer who must know better.

The plot was obviously taking an odd direction when the assembled personnel at a White House meeting agree that Israel is a “rabid dog”.  This seems a bit extreme as a consensus about a democratic ally, although certainly possible.  But it turns out that Israel is literally crazy.  The Israeli ambassador to France has been assassinated and Israel believes that this was done by Hamas and intends to wipe out Hamas in Gaza in retaliation.

Let’s ignore, for the moment, that when hundreds of rockets were launched into Israel from Gaza, this being not probably but indubitably the responsibility of Hamas, Israel, for it’s own sake, was determined not to wipe out Hamas and saddle itself with Gaza.

According to Dunn’s scenario Israel intends, at the same time as it attacks Hamas in the south, to attack both Hizballah, in Lebanon to the north (an entirely separate entity to Hamas) and the Palestinian Authority to the East.  In other words, Israel plans to start wars simultaneously on three fronts.  And it announces these plans two weeks in advance to the assembled bureaucrats of the U.S., Britain, and France (i.e. to the whole world).  This would really require Israelis to be mad dogs, just as likely as pit bulls to chase you down the street and sink their teeth into your ankle.

The United States, Britain and France are worried that if Israel goes to war it will cause havoc in the Middle East, because Sunnis will start fighting Shiites.  The reader is not supposed to have noticed that at the time of the book’s publication there was already havoc in the Middle East, and that Sunnis and Shiites started fighting without waiting for Israel to attack them both (and wouldn’t this be more likely to make them stop fighting each other and cooperate against their common enemy?)

Dunn’s plot clearly isn’t meant to be entirely realistic.  His protagonist is almost a super-hero, and he inhabits a fictionalized spy world in which a master spy might have all of his antagonist’s friends and family killed just to make him feel bad.  Dunn may have thought that there was no point thinking up a realistic plot for this kind of book.  I disagree with that.  Realistic would be good, and even barely plausible would be better than completely ridiculous.

Another possibility is that Dunn simply assumed that his readers either wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t care.

My best guess – Dunn entrusted the plot to an early version of a computer program, something like “Plot-a-Thriller 1.0”, gave it as key words Israel, Hamas, Hizballah, and Gaza, and pressed “enter”.

 

 

Great Writers are Great Psychologists

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Great writers are great psychologists.  Aside from command of language, imagination, etc., the best writers have the ability to submerge their own personalities completely and create consistent characters wholly unlike themselves.  In the second rank of talented writers who don’t pretend to be great are those with likable personalities that come through to readers and help to make their books enjoyable.

Dick Francis is an example of the latter, a good writer whose kind, brave, and gentlemanly personality shines through and makes the reader care about his heroes.  As shown by “Triple Crown”, published by Felix Francis in 2016, Felix, who was a co-writer on his father’s later books, doesn’t quite come up to the mark.  Of course he’s a generation younger, but his updating of the formula doesn’t add anything worthwhile.  He abandons his father’s old fashioned sensibilities regarding coarse language and bathroom humor, to no positive result. The one major female character has sex appeal but no personality, and protagonist Jeff Hinkley isn’t particularly admirable or likable.

One good quality of the Dick Francis books that Felix has adopted is doing his homework.  Dick Francis was able to speak knowledgeably about horse racing and training, newspaper writing, and running a charter air company, but often chose other lines of work for his protagonists, always learning enough about them to be convincing.  For Triple Crown, Felix Francis has learned a lot about the transmission and effects of equine viruses.

The plot takes British Horseracing Authority investigator Hinkley to the U.S. to hunt corruption in the competition for the Triple Crown, and is quite good.

Note:

Mystery Time will be offered as a free Kindle book on Amazon from June 26th to June 30th.  In this Alex Kertész mystery, a colleague dies in Alex’s arms at a biochemistry congress in Prague and an old watch may have mysterious powers.