Probably every city dweller in the developed world has had a thought or two about our dependence on technology. It’s no use reminding yourself that your ancestors managed without refrigerators when yours goes on the blink in mid-summer. And when several modern necessities betray you at the same time – your computer crashes, your car won’t start, and the boiler bursts – you might even start to panic.
So imagine the disaster when a group of cyber-terrorists sabotage the inter-connected electrical grid in a number of European countries and the U.S., and do it in a way that means it will take a long time to resume service. In “Blackout”, first published in German in 2012, Marc Elsberg provides a detailed analysis of the devastating domino effect of loss of electricity on modern life. All systems, from food production to medical care and sanitation, from transport and communication to manufacturing, grind to a halt within days. After more than a week without power many thousands have died and the world is headed for a deep economic recession.
In an afterword, Elsberg says that many professionals concerned with the security of infrastructure such as electrical grids and power plants have consulted him in light of the extensive research he did for this book. I hope it helped.
Aside from the unpleasant timeliness of the subject, it’s not a bad thriller, although Elsberg’s technique of jumping around among a large number of actors in many places makes the writing choppy.
A talented Italian hacker manages to figure out who the culprits are and how they did it, getting stabbed, shot, and chased by the German police in the process. And on the way, he meets a nice girl.
The Lying Game, published by Ruth Ware in 2017, has a lot to recommend it. It’s well written and has an intriguing plot and a nicely described setting in the rural English area around a girls boarding school. That said, I wouldn’t like to read any more of her books. The reason is, I just went through 446 pages of the heroine’s non-stop emotional torture.
Her story begins when she arrives at boarding school at the age of fifteen because her mother is terminally ill. She immediately hooks up with three other girls, and together they form about as obnoxious a clique of teenage girls as you could hope to find. One of their amusements is making up lies to make fools of outsiders. She begins to narrate the story seventeen years later, by which time she apparently regrets at least some of her early behavior.
She is now married and the mother of a six month old baby girl. In keeping with the fraught emotional level that seems to characterize her life, she loves all three of her school friends and her husband and her baby. She’s called back to the area of her old school when the question of what happened to the father of one of her friends while they were at school together seems to be answered with the finding of his body. Naturally, the friend lives in an old mill house that is gradually crumbling into the river.
It was a bit of a relief, toward the end, when it seemed that actually she might not love her husband all that much.
PS. A newly edited version of Death of a Gypsy is now available in the Amazon Kindle store.
Rat Run, published by Gerald Seymour in 2005, is a British espionage thriller á la John le Carré. There is plenty of action in a plot that involves both drug dealers and Islamic terrorists, but maybe you have to be British to find the plot credible, depending as it does on a character who has lost all will to live because, for no very compelling reason, he has been labeled a coward.
The characters pontificate a lot, unlike most books of this genre written by Americans, where even the desk bound characters tend to be the strong and silent type. The British characters are also outspokenly nasty, which helps explain why the victim of their comments got tired of living.
Seymour has one great advantage over le Carré in that he hasn’t succumbed to America Derangement Syndrome. This is a syndrome analogous to the Trump Derangement Syndrome that has sprouted in the U.S. since the last presidential election. Of course it’s possible to dislike the president’s actions, policies, or personality, but rational dislike doesn’t explain the extreme and bizarre behavior collectively referred to as Trump Derangement Syndrome: Several fashion designers declared that as a matter of patriotism they would refuse to sell clothes to the First Lady; a comedian thought an appearance apparently brandishing the president’s severed head would amuse the television audience; a group of professional psychiatrists (none of whom had ever met the president) published a diagnosis that the president is certifiably insane. etc. etc.
Similarly, it’s possible to rationally dislike the United States in general and some things about it in particular, but going off on venomous rants about it, as le Carré did in the last book of his I read, isn’t the stuff of an entertaining thriller.
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.
This book, published by Jonathan Freedland in 2015, succeeds on several levels. It’s well written, but that’s only the basis. It’s set in the Los Angeles of an alternative reality in which the US is well on the way to becoming a colony of China. Years ago there was some concern that America was being bought up, bit by bit, by Saudi Arabia. That was probably never a real threat, since the Saudis never showed any interest in taking over the world. But it’s common knowledge that the US is deeply in debt to China and Freedland provides a possible answer to the question; what if America was forced to default? Freedland describes a scenario in which the US has allowed the Chinese to take over the ports of the California coast in order to collect the money owed them at the source. Of course they have stationed quite a large number of soldiers at these sites to protect their interests. Freedland does a convincing job of imagining a Southern California in which everyone has at least a smattering of Mandarin, Chinese tunes pop up on the hit parade, and there is an uneasy equilibrium between the American authorities and the Chinese over whom they have no jurisdiction.
The plot of the book is a murder mystery that reminded me of The Night of the Generals, the 1962 classic that deals with a murder in occupied Poland during World War II. In that book by Hans Helmut Kirst, a detective with the German military police has to face the possibility of accusing a general of murder. In The 3RD Woman, the role of the detective is taken by a young female reporter whose sister was one of the victims of an apparent serial killer and who fearlessly follows the clues that seem to lead to an officer of the Chinese garrison.
I try to avoid mysteries in which the main character is an alcoholic. I know, the formula requires that the protagonist have some vulnerability/personal problem to make him/her human, but I read mysteries for entertainment, and the detective story version of the problems of an alcoholic tends to be tedious, squalid and neither interesting nor entertaining. Freedland has taken an original tack and given his heroine the problem of insomnia. While drinking usually hampers the fictional detective in his work, not sleeping does the opposite. While lack of sleep doesn’t improve a detective’s abilities, it does mean that he/she has a lot of extra working hours.
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 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.