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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Render Unto Caesar . . .





By Albert Ashforth
(Oceanview Publishing; 358 pages; Oct. 2, 2012)
(via Kindle: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.)
ISBN: 1608090590


As one of the characters rather leadenly­­­ puts it in Albert Ashforth’s spy thriller, The Rendition, there’s good news and there is bad news.

The good news: Ashforth, an ex-G.I. and former military contractor who has trained NATO troops and served in the Balkans, Germany and Afghanistan, has created an engaging and well-drawn protagonist, Alex Klear, who wrings some unique changes on a familiar character who in other hands might be a cliché: the post-le Carré reluctant warrior who is forced out of retirement to take one last assignment.  To complete it, he must not only struggle against the evil machinations of the book’s villains, but also fight his own callow and opportunistic bosses.

The novel also exhibits characteristics of what I call “red noir:” a plot that contains an explicit critique of capitalism as the root of evil, countered by a hero – in this case a spy rather than a private investigator – who must, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, go down these mean streets seeking justice without becoming mean himself. I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to say that one of the primary villains is an immensely wealthy man, or that part of the plot mechanism involves the corrupting influence of his money on public servants.

Albert Ashforth
Ashforth is aided immensely by his detailed knowledge of the espionage trade and the locales in which the action unfolds, and his novel’s discussion of the business of spying has the ring of authenticity.

Add to this mix black-hearted villains, exotic locales and despicable U.S. intelligence bureaucrats and you have a classic suspense novel with an interesting twist: the story starts with a mission that is a colossal failure, and for most of the tale, the reader is kept wondering whether the hero will recover from this inauspicious beginning.

That’s the good news, and it is very good indeed.  Unfortunately, the bad news, while not a deal breaker, is sufficient to mar this otherwise excellent novel of intrigue:  The Rendition, like so many other books on today’s fiction market, is simply the victim of sloppy editing.  

At times the resulting damage is relatively minor. A misspelled word or two here and there, some questionable grammar or garbled syntax are to be expected in genre fiction, so long as the mistakes don’t distract the reader from the story that is being told. 

But occasionally, the errors are enough to make a careful reader cringe – or tear his or her hair: several times Ashforth repeats himself, occasionally even using the same phrases; this gives the reader the impression he was too lazy to look for a different way to express the same thought, and at one point, makes the reader wonder why he bothered to restate something he already made clear elsewhere. 

On other occasions, he laboriously explains the meaning of acronyms that, by now, have become obvious to even an inattentive follower of current affairs.  After more than a decade of warfare, for example, I don’t think it is really necessary to explain that the initials “MRE” stand for “Meal, Ready to Eat.” This over-explanation is particularly hard to understand given that The Rendition contains a fairly complete glossary of military and intelligence terms at the end, and anything Ashforth thinks the reader might be unfamiliar with could easily have been inserted there.

While Klear is completely developed in the novel, a couple of the other characters are drawn with less attention and skill.  The book has three major female characters who could have been much more compelling if Ashforth had paid them the same attention he did to Alex Klear. One of them, a terrorist simply cries out for further development in the book, but is abruptly dropped at a crucial point in the story.  Klear’s boss, Sylvia Frost, is presented in a way that makes her seem school-marmish at one point and coquettish at another; the discontinuity is jarring and the novel would have been more satisfying if the conflicts had been smoothed out. The third woman, a Munich detective of police, is the least satisfying of all, since she is simply sketched and never thoroughly developed as a distinct individual.

But it’s probably too much to expect perfection in a vacation bonbon like The Rendition. Suffice to say that Ashforth gets the job done very nicely, and his spy yarn can be consumed in a single setting, albeit one that is on the longish side, considering that the paperbound edition is 358 pages long. It is a perfect book for summer reading or a long plane ride – say from the U.S. to Germany. It definitely rates four nooses!







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