This Sunday Morning brought something all writers dream of: A Review in the NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW. I am very proud to find myself among the hallowed pages I’ve been cherishing for a lifetime. Patriot was one of seven novels picked for the NY Times’ Fall Thriller Round-up. Dreams do come true.
Keep the faith.–Ted
Photo credit: Luke Pearson
Ted Bell’s PATRIOT (Morrow/HarperCollins, $27.99) is the ninth in his Alex Hawke series — and the only one I’ve read — but it felt like a perfect entry point, and I enjoyed the high-octane ride enough that I’ll seek out some of the earlier installments.
Hawke, as Bell repeatedly reminds us, is the sixth-richest man in England. He’s also an MI6 troublemaker. He loves Bermudian rum and American cigarettes. He stays cool in a fight and in the torture chamber. He has a yacht, a loyal butler he trades quips with and a sprawling vacation pad in the Caribbean. If it’s not already clear, let me spell it out for you: This novel is a lot of fun, an Ian Fleming-esque romp of a spy thriller.
It’s also a bit cheesy. For every stunning jungle ambush and perilous barroom seduction and lightning-lit battle, there are lines like this: “Hold on. There might actually be a way . . . an escape hatch!” And this: “The whole damn world would feel his wrath, his terrible vengeance.” These push the novel out of real-world semi-seriousness and into the cartoonish.
The strongest scenes here are the most immediate, written in the first person or from a close third-person point of view. Consider the voice of the retired colonel, Brett Beauregard, who runs a security company akin to Blackwater: “You see, the whole damn business started with the U.S.S. Cole. The Cole is a serious U.S. Navy warship, mind you. Think billion-dollar baby. . . . She carries a vast array of advanced radar equipment, not to mention her torpedoes, machine guns, Tomahawk missiles and, well — you get the picture. Bad mammajamma.” This is one of many old American male yahoos who bring a rough music to the prose and a strong sense of character to the novel.
Strangely, it’s the hero who feels most distant. While the reader is directly housed in the minds of other characters, the psychic distance often pulls back with Alex Hawke. The novel goes into omniscient mode: “Hawke was not a man one could simply glance at and ignore. It was not just his size, his armory of biceps, musculature, rock hardness and the vast reserves of strength these suggested. . . . His blue eyes were startling and had a range from merriment to charm to profound earnestness. Cross him, and he could fire a searing flash of blue across an entire room. . . . Attractive, yes, but it was his What the hell? grin, a look so freighted with charm that no woman, and even few men, could resist, that made him the man he was.” These sections feel like a sales pitch more than a consciousness: I really, really, really want you to buy into Alex Hawke as the new James Bond.
Hawke’s world is ours, with the volume turned up. His portly and brainy sidekick, Ambrose Congreve, tells him: “I’m uneasy about the position our American cousins seem to be finding themselves in lately. . . . The military is practically being dismantled, Alex. The borders to the south are nonexistent . . . . China is ascendant, Russia is on a real estate acquisition binge, the Middle East is aflame, and the Americans are setting free the worst of the worst Al Qaeda commanders from Guantánamo.”
On this politically sensitive stage, important people are dying: the former director of the C.I.A., the C.I.A. station chief in Paris, other spies from around the world. Someone is hunting them, making their deaths out to be accidents, and now they’re after Alex Hawke. The investigation and the showdown that follow are only the beginning of the novel’s trouble. The shirtless horseback rider himself, Vladimir Putin, is a character, a onetime frenemy of Hawke’s intent on once more making Russia a superpower. He’s redrawing the map of Europe and developing a new weapon that will change warfare and establish his dominance.
There’s good reason to fear Putin’s Russia: the state-sanctioned attacks on LGBT citizens, the missile-blasted jet that fell from the sky, the tanks that rolled into the Crimean Peninsula as Putin questioned the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Pundits wonder where he might show military force next — maybe Estonia, maybe Kazakhstan — and how NATO will respond. Storytellers have taken note. If you look at books like Bell’s, shows like “The Americans,” and movies like “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” and “A Good Day to Die Hard,” it appears our old familiar baddie is back. Writers are celebrating our move toward a second Cold War with a polar vortex of storytelling.