A Mexican killer for hire bent on vengeance, a top-secret NASA/ DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) program with the ominous name Project Thor that has been penetrated by foreign powers, a willful daughter, a headstrong dog, a couple of American traitors and various single, double and triple agents working for Israel, Iran or themselves: These are all ingredients in “Trader of Secrets,” Steve Martini’s latest novel starring his franchise character Paul Madriani.
Like most other writers of commercially successful crime/adventure book series, Mr. Martini knows how to spin a tale. Unlike the schlock series writers, of which there are all too many these days, he doesn’t lard his books with leaden prose, but unpeels the story onionlike - a boon to readers.
Of course, there are exotic locations - a must for James Bond movies and a growing imperative for thriller writers like Mr. Martini. Washington, D.C., figures largely in this story, with Bangkok and Paris making appearances (although I sure do wish that Mr. Martini realized that Paris taxis do have meters), as well as scenes in Ohio(?!) and a slam-bang, well-paced shoot-‘em-up episode in Mexico that would do justice to a Cubby Broccoli or Michael Mann movie.
Despite a few hiccups along the way (Mr. Martini doesn’t quite seem to know the mission parameters of the National Security Agency), much of his book is spot on when it comes to government bureaucracies and their modus operandi. He also gets his weapons right. Unlike his colleagues Lee Child and Noah Boyd, Mr. Martini understands that the Glock family of semiautomatic pistols does not have external safeties.
We even meet some interesting characters along the way. Mr. Martini’s usual cast - his protagonist’s law partner Harry Hines, his PI/security guy Herman Diggs and Paul Madriani’s main squeeze, Joselyn Cole, and his daughter, Sarah - are all around.
So is Liquida, Mr. Martini’s wonderfully drawn “Mexicutioner” and Paul Madriani’s bete noir. Liquida’s a bladesman. His luggage always contains “a cloth bundle about fourteen inches long … rolled and closed with laces that were stitched to the fabric and tied in a bow.” The bundle contains Liquida’s stilettos, “razor sharp … made in a small machine shop in Tijuana, no wood or plastic, just a single piece of high carbide steel sharpened to a point, a five-inch handle with a nine-inch double-edged blade. The blade was very thin all the way to the needlelike point. It was designed for probing and piercing vital organs and slicing major organs.” In this book, Liquida is out for vengeance. Paul Madriani has cost him money. And so Liquida goes after anyone and everyone connected to Madriani.
We also discover some factoids having to do with weapons of mass destruction, missile technology, telemetry and command codes. Mr. Martini raises a serious issue as well, an issue that becomes the Hitchcockian MacGuffin of this book. What would happen, Mr. Martini poses, if a nation could replace nuclear deterrence with something else. Replace it with a technology that could “wipe an adversary off the face of the earth” and at the same time “avoid accountability for the act.” In other words, use the cover of an immense natural disaster to bring an adversary superpower to its knees.
Thrown into the mix are a bunch of Israeli commandos and a Mossad operative with the unlikely name of Adin (which in Hebrew means tender), a shady underworld expediter named Bruno Croleva, a couple of techno-thieves named Lawrence Leffort and Raji Fareed and a young but aggressive Doberman pinscher named Bugsy.
There are also some welcome politico/societal elements in the book, some of which challenge conventional wisdom and the sort of touchy-feely liberalism that Hollywood brings to all too many projects. Mr. Martini is obviously not too fond of the FBI, whose gumshoes tend to be slow and unimaginative thinkers. He is neutral to positive toward the Second Amendment: One of his characters starts out anti-gun in her thinking but comes to realize that a firearm can be a valuable deterrent when your life is in danger.
He is also, as we learn late in the book, rightly contemptuous of the way governments often overclassify documents, programs and other elements out of fear that their inadequacies, foibles or mistakes will be discovered, as opposed to the valid need to keep some information secure from our adversaries. “Near disasters,” Mr. Madriani writes, “were always something that government leaders sought to downplay, especially if their own incompetence and possible corruption were contributing factors. It was one of the time tested reasons for classifying otherwise public information. People in positions of power always had to survive; otherwise the world might turn upside down. Doctors merely buried their mistakes. Presidents shoveled them by the ton into the constantly and massive dark hole of national security.”
Amen. Well done, Mr. Martini.
John Weisman’s latest CIA novels, “Soar,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action,” are available as Avon paperbacks and on Kindle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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