Scott Murdoch is the most secret of secret agents for the US government, until he exits the “business” and writes the ultimate book about investigative techniques; under a pseudonym of course. Then, while trying to lead a “normal” life, he is consulting the New York police on a murder investigation when his past life comes back to grab him. There is a massive threat to the United States and he is the man to deal with it.
There is a lot to like about this novel. First and foremost, it is a page-turner in the early Tom Clancy class. Despite the significant heft of the book, the narrative runs off with the reader. The first third is full of flashbacks, and even flashbacks within flashbacks, fleshing out our hero’s backstory and legend (both literally and figuratively). Murdoch tells his own story while the antagonist, a modern day, more intelligent, creepier Bin Laden, moves in parallel to enact his sinister strike on the soft underbelly of the United States.
I was on tenterhooks until the end, but the novel falls over in its overuse of action and spy movie tropes. Writing about computers straining and operators pounding on keyboards is silly in a screenplay and laughable in a novel. Action set pieces, while quite good, are always a flirting with Mission Impossible.
And yet, there is something deeper which this novel does well. Murdoch’s background as a loner and his shadow life as an agent resonate with the hidden world where protecting the innocent means setting aside conventional rules of morality. While these themes are by no means original, the manner in which they are written is at least thought provoking. Our hero is no white knight by any means. His motives are admirable, but he himself readily admits that his methods are not pretty. Perhaps I am reaching, but this may be the author’s attempt to explain why the world can only be safe if there are brutal men willing to do violence on behalf of the citizenry.
The author’s seeming desire to tie things up in a neat little bow at the end also bugged me. Things are just a bit too tidy, at odds with the theme of the book which is that no one ever leaves the secret agent world.