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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. . .

Saturday, January 25, 2014

L.T. Ryan Betrays His Readers in His Latest Espionage Novel

By L.T. Ryan

File Size: 433 KB
Print Length: 247 pages
eBook sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

L.T. (“Lee”) Ryan's  Beyond Betrayal is a story without characters, action, a logical plot or an explanation as to why any of the things that occur in its 240-odd pages have happened. It could easily be the worst espionage novel I have ever cracked open – and maybe the worst genre novel of any variety.

It cost me only 99 cents to purchase through Amazon and that was about 67 cents more than it was worth. Avoid it at all costs.

Beyond Betrayal’s plot – to the extent it has one – is fairly straightforward: Clarissa Abbott, the heroine, is a deep cover agent working under a non-civil-service contract with an unnamed U.S. intelligence agency. She has infiltrated a terrorist group in London, but is pulled off the assignment without explanation and called back to participate in a top secret mission in Washington D.C.

Once she arrives, she is cast into a nest of disgruntled bureaucrats who seem bitter, ambitious and utterly untrustworthy. She is given conflicting information about who she is supposed to be working for and what she is supposed to be doing.  She suspects she has been immersed in this situation so she can be quietly slain or used as the scapegoat in a murderous conspiracy. She’s convinced she has been set up to be a victim of the capitol’s bureaucratic rivalries and the perfidy of her own employers.

That’s as good as it gets. Really. This novel has enough content to write a two-paragraph pitch memo, but not enough for a compelling 300-plus page novel.

Ryan’s been around for a while now and his webpage indicates he has written six books in his Jack Noble series alone.  You would think with that kind of experience to his credit, he would at least be competent as a storyteller. You'd be wrong.

Author L.T. Ryan, courtesy of Amazon.com

Clarissa Abbott, the heroine, remains a cypher throughout the book. There are hints that she has a tragic past, but Ryan is too lazy, arrogant or indifferent to his readers to tell us about it.

As he told fans in his blog when he served up an excerpt from the novel before it was released in late December, “I’ll let you know upfront, there’s not a lot of info dumping or back story thrown into this book. By this point, you know that’s not how I write.”

All we know about Clarissa is that she spends most of the novel fretting about her situation and passively observing what the other characters do. This is not a particularly solid grounding for a heroine to have, and readers will end up feeling little sympathy for her character. The only person in the novel who gets shorter shrift than Clarissa is the chief villain – and all we know about him by the end of the book is that he recruited her, he’s a bad guy and his name is Sinclair.

In fact, most of the characters in Beyond Betrayal are as superficial and uninvolving as the heroine and the villain: not a single one of them does or says anything interesting or original during the course of the book. They appear, do whatever business Ryan has assigned them, then disappear again. Some are introduced and shuffled off stage so perfunctorily that they are not even given names, let alone personalities.

The only one who is rewarded with an actual personality is a bureaucrat named Julie Polanski who is stuck in middle management at an agency she hates and lets Clarissa know she is bitter about it. We actually end up knowing a damn sight more about Polanski than we do about Abbott, even though Clarissa is the focal point of the story.

Ryan’s failure to give us a character with any history or depth is a sufficiently epic fail to make Beyond Betrayal a wash-out from the jump.  But the writer compounds this error with a series of other writing gaffes that render the book a complete waste of time.

For one thing, the novel is almost completely bereft of thrills, even though it is supposed to be a thriller.

Readers turn more than a third of the novel’s pages before anything actually of substance happens: an attempt to assassinate the vice-president of the United States. And when that attempt finally occurs, no explanation that makes any sense is ever offered for it. It is simply a plot mechanism that moves the story from a seemingly endless holding pattern to a chase sequence ending in a bloody gun battle at Boston’s Logan Airport.

If the reader is hoping that firefight will provide some sort of catharsis, or at least an explanation of what has gone before, he or she is going to be disappointed:

"As the officers pulled Clarissa to her feet, she caught one last glimpse of Sinclair. A single thought ran through her mind: why? Why had he done this? No one benefitted from it. Not even him. Or did he? She doubted she'd ever find out."

Ryan pads his novel with endless descriptive passages delivered in a tersely Hemingwayesque prose style. These passages fail to move the story forward even a millimeter but fill so many pages you would swear he was being paid by the word. An example:

“The guy took a step forward. A couple walking along the outer edges of the corridor took two steps in. The man nodded, flashed a smile and merged into the line. He was three paces in front of [Clarissa]. She glanced down at his shoes. They looked expensive. The soles were hard and thick. The uppers made from leather.  A lot of the guys paid for custom shoes, she’d heard. They wanted comfort, the ability to kick ass and to look good.”

Honest, folks. I am not making this shit up. It’s really that bad.

If this sort of boring tripe had the purpose of setting up a good action sequence, it might be forgiven. But Ryan’s idea of a heart-pounding action sequence is to have Clarissa and her largely anonymous handlers lead us on an endless series of treks down empty corridors in Washington D.C. government buildings. 

“[It] turned out that their time together ended ten minutes later,” Ryan writes, clumsily introducing one of these tedious strolls. “He led her through a maze of hallways, through break rooms, into one elevator then down a final hall. She struggled to figure out which direction she faced. He halted in front of a dark wooden floor.”

“’This is it for me,' he said. ‘Go on in. They’ll be along shortly.’ “

That was on page 30. If I had been thinking clearly, that would have been it for me, too. Instead I soldiered on through the rest of the book, waiting impatiently for something – anything – to happen.

In the blog entry in which Ryan posted an excerpt from this book, he referred to Clarissa as "obviously street smart." "Street smart" my fanny! For the most part she comes across as a brainless dipstick confronted by villains so stupid they couldn’t find their way out of a pay toilet with a roadmap and 24/7 GPS service.

When the going gets tough, Clarissa dissolves in hysterical tears and completely loses her ability to concentrate on anything but saving her own life. She drops her gun in the middle of one firefight and has to recover it from a cook in a restaurant kitchen. 

She fails to display even the most rudimentary skill at unarmed combat and remains under the physical control of her opponents throughout the novel. And even though she suspects everyone is plotting against her, she continues to readily offer them her trust and let them order her around like an intern in a corporate mailroom.

At several junctures she exclaims, “What in the hell is going on, Beck?” never once getting a coherent answer. I swear, if she had used the phrase one more time, I would have flushed my Kindle down the toilet.

The only thing Beyond Betrayal has right is its title: this novel betrays its readers in so many ways that nobody but a masochist would read it.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Diminutive Heroine Faces Spies, Assassin in New Redling Thriller

By S.G. Redling
238 pages
(Thomas & Mercer; January 1, 2014)
ISBN-10: 1477808612
ISBN-13: 978-1477808610

Danielle "Dani" Britton is an analyst for a very secretive corporate security firm located in Virginia. She is brilliant at her job, but she has one bad habit: she takes her work home with her. 

This puts her at risk when a mysterious group of attackers launch a raid in which all but three of Dani's co-workers are killed, the building where she works is razed and Dani is forced to figure out why or become the plot's next victim.

Before The Widow File, S.G. Redling's latest thriller, is over, Dani is shot in the leg, nearly drowns and is attacked by a professional assassin working for the bad guys. She is stalked in the nation's capital, two more of her co-workers are killed and a third is critically wounded. What's more, she finds herself tracking a deadly conspiracy that could embarrass the United States government.

The Widow File is a solid suspense novel with treacherous characters, deadly situations and the requisite dose of paranoia. As a heroine, Dani is unique: she is diminutive in stature, timid by nature and lacks any expertise in unarmed combat or the use of weapons. Instead of shooting it out with the novel's villains or besting them through the use of martial arts, she is forced to use her brain to defeat them. In addition, she has to overcome her natural -- and quite believable -- tendency to panic and freeze when confronted by danger in order to maintain the cool head and sound judgment she needs to avoid death at the hands of her tormentors.

Sheila Redling, the book's author, hosts a morning radio program at a station in West Virginia and is the author of a variety of fictional works, including Damocles, a sci-fi novel, and Flowertown, a paranoid suspense story.  

S.G. Redling, author of The Widow File (photo courtesy of her blog).

In The Widow File she takes the unusual step of writing from two points of view: that of Dani Britton and that of Tom, the professional assassin who has been assigned to stalk and kill her. 

The plot is complex -- unnecessarily so at times --  and Redling is inclined to inundate her readers with detail, some of which is not really necessary to move the story along.  What makes the book work, however, is the interaction between Dani and Tom -- a cat and mouse relationship in which the victim ends up tormenting her pursuer as much as she is tormented by him.

A certain type of paranoid thriller wouldn't be complete without a secret villain to unmask at the denouement. The Widow File has one, but the mastermind's identity is signaled early in the novel and most readers will be able to tell who is actually calling the shots for the bad guys long before the climax. This transparency is a major weakness of the story, as is the murky motive that sets the plot in motion in the first place: the villain reveals why all the murders and mayhem have occurred in a talky bit of exposition toward the end that some readers will find unsatisfying.

Nevertheless, for the most part The Widow File keeps the reader's attention nicely and I found myself swept along by it sufficiently that I ended up finishing the novel at three in the morning. Despite a book's faults, if it keeps you reading, that is recommendation enough. The Widow File definitely does that -- and more. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

New Arkady Renko Novel Finds Martin Cruz Smith at His Very Best

By Martin Cruz Smith
305 pages
ISBN: 1439140219
( Simon & Schuster; Nov. 12, 2013)
(eBook by Simon and Schuster Digital Sales, Inc.)

I have admired Martin Cruz Smith's Russian Militsia Detective Arkady Renko since I first picked up a copy of Gorky Park in the early 1980s.  Renko is a marvelous character. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, count me as sincere: when I wrote my supernatural crime tale, "Witch's Hat Trick," I tried to emulate the dry, ironic tone that Smith brings to his Renko novels.

Renko is a skeptic and cynic who refuses to allow gangsters, corrupt officials or crooked cops prevent him from completing his investigations and fashioning some rough form of justice for the perpetrators of crimes -- though it always seems the biggest criminals, including the ones serving in official positions -- manage to slip off his hook. Such is life in the People's Republic of Oligarchs, modern day Russia.

Renko is bleakly funny, romantic and tough enough to survive a bullet lodged in his brain -- at least, so far. What's not to like?

So I am pleased to note that Smith's latest Renko novel, Tatiana, finds our senior investigator once again working on the side of truth and righteousness against bad policemen, even worse organized crime figures and the inertia of his own country's criminal justice machinery.

Martin Cruz Smith is in top form in his latest Arkady Renko adventure
(Photo courtesy of www.martincruzsmith.com) 

The plot of Tatiana is complicated, but not unduly so: Tatiana Petrovna, "a troublemaker to the end," is an investigative reporter known for digging up scandals that the authorities would prefer remain buried. She has died as the result of a fall from her apartment window. Her friends believe she was murdered; the official verdict is suicide.

Renko has no opinion one way or the other, but becomes involved in a highly personal investigation of her death after he inadvertently comes across a collection of cassette tape recordings on which she has left notes from her various journalistic investigations.

Mesmerized by her voice, he begins an inquiry that leads him to a conspiracy between military officials and organized crime bosses to rake massive amounts off a government contract to repair an all-but-useless Russian submarine by sending it to a shipyard in China for refitting -- a breach not only of the law, but of official Russian security.

Renko encounters the usual official and unofficial impediments to his probe: he is forced to solve the opaque code of an interpreter who was murdered after facilitating the multi-national meetings where the plot was hatched; the investigator's life -- and those of the people closest to him -- are threatened; and at one point, he is forced to join a bicycle tour of Kaliningrad to avoid capture, torture and elimination by those who would stop his investigation.

There are references to Tolstoy and Pushkin, short digressions into Russian military history and enough inside knowledge about the way Russian institutions operate in the Twenty First century to leave a reader sad and depressed. 

The novel is full of intriguing characters: Maxim, a fading poet and Tatiana's former lover who seems intent on misguiding Renko for reasons that are unclear; Renko's live-in lover Anya, a would-be photojournalist who engages in a dalliance with Alexi, the heir and successor to a dead mobster; Zhenya, the teenage chess hustler whose father was killed while trying to murder Renko and who now uneasily shares an apartment with the Militsia investigator; and Abdul, a Chechen rebel turned automobile smuggler and unlikely hip-hop star. All of them strut and fret their hour upon the stage in the shadow of the sour pessimism and hopelessness that seems to be the birthright of every Russian.

There is a satisfying conclusion in which many loose ends are tied up, but not so thoroughly that we won't wait eagerly for the next Renko book.

Not only is Renko a fine character, but Smith is a fine writer: Reading one of his novels is like an Easter egg hunt where the reader finds a precious egg -- one of those jewel-crusted FabergĂ© numbers created for long-dead Tsars -- on almost every page.  

And Tatiana is Smith at the top of his form.  I can't recommend it enough.


Major Characters are Good but Villains are Two-dimensional in Hotel Takeover Novel

By Simon Kernick
386 pages
ISBN: 1476706239
(Atria Books, reprint edition, June 4, 2013)
(eBook sold by: Simon and Schuster Digital Sales, Inc.)
ASIN: B00A285Q4U

Siege, the latest Tina Boyd novel by British thriller writer Simon Kernick, is one of those high-action novels that grabs you from the first page, despite its many flaws.

If you aren't sure what I mean, check this out:

"They killed her as soon as she opened the front door."

That's the novel's one-sentence intro. How could a serious suspense fiction fan fail to read on?

Author Simon Kernick (Photo courtesy of www.simonkernick.com)

The fundamental structure of the story is sound and the plot is as tight and well-constructed as that first sentence.  Best of all, the handful of major characters that the story is built around are believable and sympathetic.

But the novel has problems, chiefly poorly developed secondary characters and villains whose evil is not sufficiently explained in the book. In a number of cases, the villains are merely stick figures that have been clumsily inserted into the text to either move a particular plot point or be killed. 

Here's the basic situation: a group of apparent Middle Eastern terrorists take over a large London hotel in a bloody attack that leaves a number of people dead for no apparent reason other than to convince us the villains are scum.  Superficially, at least, the siege is a hostage-taking operation; police are summoned, a safety zone cleared, a command van put in place and a negotiator brought in to contact the baddies and find out what they want.  Bombs are rigged to go off at a certain time and a deadline is set by the armed attackers -- all of whom are code-named for animals. The confrontation initially plays out as a race by the authorities to save the maximum number of innocent people while giving the terrorists nothing of any substance.

Which is another way of saying, up to this point, Siege is a standard barricaded suspect nail-biter.

But beneath the surface, a completely different game is being played: "Fox," one of the leaders of the siege, is an ex-commando from England that is running an intelligence mission from inside the armed takeover. The real objective of the siege, it turns out, is to create a noisy and bloody distraction so the terrorists can grab Michael Prior, a British MI6 officer who is at the hotel for an assignation with his lover, and force him to turn over the name of a highly placed British mole inside the Chinese security services.

A series of complications ensue, not the least of which is the fact that a former British military officer is trapped inside with the others and he has just killed three men in one of the hotel's luxury suites.

The officer -- who is referred to simply as "Scope" -- begins to eliminate the terrorists one by one while  Fox struggles to maintain control over his hostages and his band of killers. Meanwhile, commandos from the British Special Air Services get ready to launch an armed rescue effort before the bombs go off.

Scope, we eventually learn, is not some garden-variety psycho who accidentally found himself locked in a hotel full of terrorists and their victims; he turns out to be a well-defined character who had good reason to murder the three guests in the suite upstairs.

Other substantial characters in the novel include Elena Serenko, a middle manager at the hotel; a guest, Abby Levinson, whose Type Two diabetes creates yet another complication in the plot; and Deputy Assistant Commissioner Arley Dale, the police woman in charge of operations at the scene.

The novel's real problem is its villains: some are simply caricatures, including Cat, a female Islamic extremist who seems to be driven solely by her hormones, and Wolf, a cowardly terrorist commander with a greasy pock-marked face. Some members of the siege team -- including Cat's murderously fanatic younger brother, a Scandinavian ex-soldier who has been hired to handle the explosives, and the young man assigned to transport a suicide bomb  -- are cardboard cutouts whose only real purpose in the story is to die violently, providing the action needed to hold reader interest. Without exception, the terrorists seem to be morons; this, by itself, demonstrates that the only reason they appear in the book is to be riddled with gunfire at opportune moments or punctured with sharp-edged weapons.

As for Tina Boyd, one of Kernick's most compelling creations and the star of her own series of thrillers, she barely makes an appearance in this book. Her role is distinctly tertiary and Kernick admits he had originally intended her part in the narrative to be played by a male character that hasn't appeared in his earlier books.

To my mind, that probably would have been a better way to proceed. As it is, Boyd may add some name value to this book for her die-hard fans, but she has so little to do here and she does it in such a lackluster way, it would have been better to leave her out entirely.

It occurs to me that this is one of those novels that could have been vastly improved if it had simply been expanded by roughly another fifty pages. That would have given Kernick the space necessary to pump his two-dimensional characters into real people. In a flashback, for example, we could have learned how Wolf was tapped to lead a major terrorist operation inside Great Britain, or why he would even want to. Kernick might have explained how Cat was drawn to the use of violence as a political tool and what caused her hatred of the West.

Characters must have reasons for acting the way they do in a book, yet we really have no idea what compels this pair. It would have been nice to have at least some insight into what they thought they were going to accomplish at the hotel.  As it stands, the only villain whose motivation is made remotely clear is Fox, the ex-soldier who expects to be paid five million for masterminding the hotel's takeover.

Let me make myself completely clear: the things that Kernick does well in this thriller he does very well, indeed.  You keep turning its pages because you sincerely want to know what happens to Dale, Levinson, Serenko and Scope. They are fully-rounded characters, full of life and intended to be sympathetic to the reader.

Unfortunately, his first rate effort on the plot and some of the main characters is undermined by the poor quality of his evil-doers. If you decide to give Siege a shot, let the complex story and the sympathetic main characters pull you along.  Don't spend too much time thinking about how much better the book could have been with a little tweaking.  It's too late for that, now.