Showing posts with label Chris Morgan Jones. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chris Morgan Jones. Show all posts

13 March 2019

Firefly

David Edgerley Gates

I'm reading a thriller called Firefly, by a Brit named Henry Porter. It's a recent release, last year, and the guy's new to me, but he's got some serious chops. This is his sixth book. He comes recommended by people like Joseph Kanon and Lee Child, and they've picked a winner.


Firefly is about a Syrian refugee kid, on the run from ISIS thugs, who survives shipwreck and flounders ashore on the Aegean coast, and makes his own slow dangerous path across Greece and Macedonia, into the Balkans, trying to reach Germany and what he imagines is safe haven. The trip is of course complicated by all sorts of hazards, not least of which is a determined pursuit by agents of Al-munajil - machete, in Arabic - an Islamic State jihadi gearing up for a terror attack in western Europe.

The other thread of the narrative is that British SIS is in the hunt for the boy, too, along with other friendly security services, French, German, because he gives them their best shot at identifying and intercepting Al-munajil. He's a stalking horse.

Where this parts company with the usual is in the character of the covert contractor they send into the Balkans after the boy Naji. He's an ex-spook named Paul Samson, now working the private side. A former refugee himself, of Lebanese extraction, he's fluent in Arabic, and specializes in hostage rescue. He's not your generic soldier of fortune, weary and cynical, but a stubbornly principled guy who's determined to find Naji alive, and save him.

Which is a real departure. We've gotten used to deeply compromised heroes, with spy fiction in particular. Even in Fleming, where Bond is supposedly under discipline, he's still a stone killer, off the leash. Later iterations, in LeCarre and Deighton and Charles McCarry, have authority issues and attitude problems and nervous bowels, if they're not in fact morally suspect. It's refreshing to have a hero who does the honorable thing without a lot of fuss or fidget. In this, Paul Samson is a close cousin to French film-maker Casson in Alan Furst's The World at Night, or even more so, to Ben Webster and Ike Hammer in Chris Morgan Jones' The Jackal's Share and The Searcher.

Often, the pure of heart are villains. Nobody's more convinced of their rectitude than the holy. And if not villains, then victims, or pawns. Eager recruits. (See, for example, The Little Drummer Girl.) There's actually a lot to be said for a character who does the right thing for the right reasons. I've been thinking about this myself, with regard to the people in my own stories. I favor a little ambiguity, but the sometime inflexibility of a guy like the Rio Arriba sheriff Benny Salvador or the old Texas star-packer Doc Hundsacker isn't always out of place.


There's a lot of uncertainty in the world these days, along with mixed messages, not to mention outright wickedness, and there's plenty of it on display in Firefly. Which is why you find yourself rooting for Naji, and for Paul Samson. The refugee crisis (or immigrant crisis, if you prefer) is brutally real, in Europe as it is elsewhere, and we can take some small comfort in small victories. 

27 July 2016

Giving Up The Ghost

by David Edgerley Gates
I happened on a thriller writer named Chris Morgan Jones, who has three books under his belt, all of them about a private security outfit that takes on corporate espionage - which generally means Follow The Money. I liked what I read, and checked out his website, where he lists a few of his influences, along with how and why. This then prompted me to send him a letter, as follows:

Dear Chris,

   I'm very much in agreement with your listed influences - although I might have chosen OUR MUTUAL FRIEND over BLEAK HOUSE - but I was brought up a little short by HARLOT'S GHOST. I have to say, with all due respect, that I think the novel strikes a false note from beginning to end.  It's only fair that I explain.

   This is awhile back, mind, but I lived in Provincetown at the same time as Norman Mailer, and we knew each other very slightly, friends of friends. The guy I knew better was Peter Manso, who was working on a Mailer biography, and had Mailer's confidence. (They had a bitter falling-out later on, but this was then.) Mailer asked Peter if he knew anybody who could recommend some reliable source material on CIA, and Peter said he did, meaning me. I suggested Thomas Powers' THE MAN WHO KEPT THE SECRETS, which is still the best go-to, and somewhat mischievously, Edward Jay Epstein's LEGEND, a speculation about whether Lee Oswald was ever under KGB discipline. As it happens, the Epstein book is fascinating, but you have to be pretty drenched in the literature to benefit, and it ain't for the fevered brow.

   The eventual result was HARLOT'S GHOST. There was a later Oswald book, but the point here is that Mailer simply didn't absorb the basics of what Powers and Epstein had to say, particularly about the character of the intelligence community. Mailer went off on his usual belligerent conceits, the voices in his head drowning out anything he might have learned from listening to someone else. I'm not pissed off that he didn't take my advice - strictly speaking, I didn't give him any - but it's aggravating that he paid no attention at all. His notions were too firmly fixed. CIA people, the received wisdom has it, can only be hollow men, without inner gravity. Spare me.

All the best,
DEG

*

A few years ago (and a few years later than the events above), I went to a reunion in San Antonio. It was personnel who'd been stationed in Berlin at the 6912th, my former outfit, but not necessarily all at the same time, so it was a grab-bag. Different ages, although mostly in their fifties and sixties. Probably a hundred or so people. By and large, they'd gone career military, a twenty-year hitch, and then quite a few of them had transitioned over to NSA, as intelligence analysts or instructors, for another twenty, so we're talking about a lifetime in the spook trade. Which got me thinking. Why a book about the morally exhausted, cynical and world-weary? Done to death. Why not a story about commitment, a duty to something larger than ourselves, pride of ownership?

During the reunion, we took a field trip out to Lackland AFB to watch a graduation ceremony, new recruits trooping the colors after completing Basic, and then we went to a less publicly-traveled part of the base, where ISR is housed - Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, which is what they call the USAF Security Service nowadays. The event was a memorial. The commanding officer read a list of names - going back to the beginning, in 1948 - the officers and enlisted killed in the line of duty. There are more than you might think, but most of them flight status, killed in aircraft shoot-downs, the Baltic, the Black Sea, the Sea of Japan, off Vladivostok or Sakhalin Island, the coast of Viet Nam. Their families wouldn't have been told about the classified missions they were flying, or that they'd come under attack by Russian pilots. Too sensitive, at the time.

It was sunny and hot, noonish, but early October, so it isn't stifling. The air was still. Quiet corner of the base, not a lot of ambient noise. You can hear a couple of jets taking off from Kelly, the runways a mile or so away. The names are read, we have a moment of silence. The bagpipes start up, "Amazing Grace." And then, right overhead and coming in low, a formation of four fighters in a diamond pattern, the same planes we'd heard taking off. Just as they go over, the plane in the tail position does a flip-up, pulling sudden G's, out of the formation. This maneuver is called The Missing Man, signifying a flyer lost in action, and I'm not the only one starting to get weepy.

The experience reinforced something I already knew, which is that choosing to go career military is like it or not about duty, pride in the mission, accepting a larger responsibility. It's a concept that may have fallen out of fashion in some quarters, and of course it always smacked of self-aggrandizement or suspect sentimentality, if you happened to voice it aloud. I've never know a single lifer who'd own up to this, at least not without a knowing half-smile, and a degree of irony. That said, when I wrote THE BONE HARVEST, it turned out to be very much about the lifer community. Not in the same way as a novel like Sarah Bird's YOKOTA OFFICERS CLUB, but maybe its second cousin.

THE BONE HARVEST takes place in the early months of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, beginning on Christmas Day 1979, and the book is about mounting an intelligence operation in hostile territory. It's an educated guess that such an operation was in fact mounted on the ground in Pakistan, but I'd be very surprised if I'd guessed wrong. more than this, the book might be considered kind of a course correction to all the egregious eyewash that gets written about the spy biz. Not the James Bond stuff - there's nothing wrong with derring-do, even if it borders on the fantastical, and Bond after all isn't a spy, he's a hit man - but the tired drivel that keeps being trotted out as received wisdom, the opportunistic cubicle rats with no moral compass, or misguided zealots bent on jihad, field agents burned or corrupted or gone rogue, assets abandoned, the whole a Darwinian lottery, predator and prey.

It makes for good theater, no argument, but it's lazy. I wanted to come up with something more original, or maybe more retro - John Buchan, say - but with contemporary hardware, state-of-the-art for that period in the Cold War. On the other hand, you can't be a total gear freak. How much is enough, giving it the right feel, and how much is too much, when people's eyes start to glaze over? That one telling detail is often all you need.

I've quoted le CarrĂ© before, to the effect that it doesn'd have to be authentic, it has to be convincing. My point here isn't to disrespect anybody, my point is that far too often I'm left unconvinced. For me that's the kiss of death, getting something wrong that's easy to get right, or simply being wrong-headed. I could care less about your politics, or whether you set the table with the salad fork on the outside, but there's one inflexible rule. Don't play fast and loose with the reader's confidence. Once you lose it, you'll never win it back.



I began with Chris Morgan Jones, and took the long way around to get where I was going, so let me wrap this up by saying I enjoyed THE SEARCHER enormously, and have now gone back to read the first of his three novels, THE SILENT OLIGARCH, which came out in 2012. It's always a pleasure to happen on a new writer - or at least somebody new to us. This guy delivers. 
http://www.chrismorganjones.com/