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.