- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2007

THE HUNTERS: A PRESIDENTIAL AGENT NOVEL

By W.E.B. Griffin

Putnam, $26.95, 515 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN WEISMAN

When it comes to reviewing the work of my fellow thriller writers, I am generally a very forgiving kind of guy. Writing any genre of novel is tough enough. Getting inside the heads of Delta Force operators or CIA case officers can be a monumental challenge.

Indeed, mastering the rarified nomenclature of elite military units or the intricate tradecraft of intelligence professionals or police procedures adds a whole other hurdle to the nuts-and-bolts problems of sustaining pace, adjusting the plot arc, fine-tuning the dialogue and dealing with character development. Plus, there’s that gnawing, deep-seated writer’s desire to make the words sing and the reader devour the book in a single gulp. In a nutshell, it ain’t easy.

And so, the fact that in the current bestselling thriller “The Hunters,” W.E.B. Griffin apparently doesn’t know the difference between a CIA officer (that’s an American spy) and a CIA agent (that’s a foreign national recruited by a CIA officer to commit treason and spy on behalf of the United States) didn’t bother me too much. A lot of bestselling thriller writers screw that detail up. So, frankly, do a lot of newspaper, magazine and television journalists who should also know better.

Nor did it particularly disturb me that in “The Hunters,” the third volume of Mr. Griffin’s Presidential Agent series and set in August of 2005, Mr. Griffin refers to the CINC (the acronym for Commander-in-Chief) of the U.S. Central Command, even though in August of 2005, the correct title for CENTCOM’s boss would have been COM/CENTCOM. That’s because the former secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, did away with all combatant commanders’ CINC titles a few years back.

But that error’s understandable too. Mr. Griffin has written 37 books, and he turns them out at a sprinter’s pace. Maybe he doesn’t have time to follow what’s going on at the Pentagon.

I didn’t find Mr. Griffin’s appalling lack of knowledge about how the State Department’s rarified Foreign Service culture works particularly galling either. I figure that Mr. Griffin, like most non-Washingtonians, believes that you climb the Foreign Service ladder into the senior grades through plodding, dedicated overseas service.

It’s not true, of course. Most of the quickest-rising Foreign Service officers cement their career paths by astute politicking and earnest lick-spittling in the marbled corridors of HST (which is how insiders refer to the Harry S. Truman Main State Office Building), as executive assistants to politically powerful undersecretaries or troubleshooting factotums for departmental superstars like John Negroponte.

Perhaps Mr. Griffin should have pulled the biography of someone like Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns off the State Web site as factual grist for his fictional mill.

I wasn’t even upset when Mr. Griffin misidentified a Madsen 9-mm submachine gun as being Swedish when it is in fact Danish. The Swedes’ 9-mm Model 45 workhorse subgun is commonly referred to as the Carl Gustaf. Sure, the Madsen and the Carl Gustaf are both 9mm, but they’re different creatures. And then I thought, well, you know, Danish, Swedish — they’re both up north somewhere.

Now I was somewhat taken aback when one of Mr. Griffin’s characters asserted that the sniper ammunition manufactured under U.S. Government contract at ATK/Federal’s Lake City Utah facility “has never been sold as military surplus or given to anyone or any foreign government.” Mr. Griffin doesn’t specify, but just for the record he’s talking about the particular load called M118 LR — for Long Range — ammunition.

I was taken aback because a few days earlier, I’d Googled “M118 LR Lake City” and come up with a bunch of sites where I could get this very accurate 7.62X51 175-grain Sierra hollow tip boat tail match grade M118LR for use in my Sage Industries/Fulton Armory M1A EBR. In fact, a Web site called the-armory.com was selling M118 in USG boxes of 20 for $18.99 — not a bad price these days.

But I must tell you, when Mr. Griffin misspelled the name of my favorite Irish whiskey, John Jameson, that’s when I blew my top. Knowing about Jameson and Dublin’s Bow Street Distillery doesn’t require research — just passion for great whiskey.

And then I realized what is wrong with Mr. Griffin’s book, and why it was taking me so long to read it. There is no passion in the writing. It’s like he phoned the novel in, or created it by using one of those old paint-by-number template kits. There’s no obsession, no craziness, no explosiveness to “The Hunters.” Nor is there grab-you-by-the-lapels prose or edge-of-the-seat action sequences either. Mr. Griffin has spun his tale out to more than 500 pages of prose. And it is hard going.

What makes things even more disappointing is that “The Hunters” has been set in a lot of interesting places, including Buenos Aires, one of the most fascinating cities on the face of the earth. BA is to Tango and romance what the Vatican is to Catholicism.

Its Avenida 9 de Julio is the world’s widest street — crossing 9 de Julio is an adventure in itself, day or night. BA is wondrous, extraordinary, romantic, crowded, and exotic all at once. It is a city of classic outdoor cafes like Recoleta’s famous pair on opposite corners of Avenida Quintana — La Biela and Cafe de la Paix.

You can sit at either one, nursing a draft Quilmes, or a goblet of deep red Malbec redolent of cherries and fraises, smoke a good Habano, and watch the world go by: Note with pleasure the professional dog walkers holding Gordian knots of leashes as they shepherd their yappy four-legged charges across the grid-locked streets; marvel at nubile young lovelies in eye-popping halter tops whizzing past on inline skates, or ogle the Chanel-clad beauties sharing an omelet and sipping austere white wine.

And how much of BA’s unique ambiance comes through in “The Hunters?” The answer is none of it. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Not a hint. Frankly, Mr. Griffin could have set the book in Cleveland or Orlando and it wouldn’t have made a whit of difference. There are no hints of BA’s manifold sights, sounds, and smells; none of the mesmerizing, sophisticated, multicultural gustatory, visual and cultural jewels that Buenos Aires has to offer.

It all came to a head on page 323, when Mr. Griffin’s protagonist walks into an apartment in BA’s fashionable Belgrano neighborhood for yet another interminable conversation, followed by a dog-walking scene that includes a graphic descriptions of a Bouvier des Flandres doing his business.

Okay, so what do we see through Mr. Griffin’s protagonist’s eyes? “A table holding platters of cheese and cold cuts, bottles of wine and ginger ale, and glasses was between two matching couches.”

Th-th-th-that’s all, folks. Your $26.95 gets you a pallid, generic, description that sounds a lot more Reston condo than Buenos Aires flat. The occupant of the apartment, incidentally, is a sophisticated Hungarian chap. And yet all we get is cold cuts? No nose-enticing Hungarian salami, no aged Serrano the color of cordovan leather, no smoky Westphalian ham or garlic-infused chorizos Argentinas to make us salivate. Nope. Mr. Griffin serves up only cold cuts. Frankly, you might want to read something more … appetizing.

John Weisman’s thriller “Direct Action” was released last spring by Avon Books. He is currently researching a nonfiction book on terrorism.

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