- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 17, 2008


By Stephen Coonts

St. Martin’s Press, $26.95, 341 pages


These days, there are three distinct forms for the action-adventure thriller genre. There’s the reality-based thriller, originated by the long-winded and all-too-often ponderous techno-prose of the Tom Clancy School. There are fantasy thrillers, typified by the papier-mache characters, slam-bang action, and bright red Crayola prose of the Robert Ludlum School. Finally, there are assembly line series often “created by” (but not necessarily written by) Big Time Authors, that are marketed simply to make money.

Stephen Coonts’ wonderful 1986 debut novel, “Flight of the Intruder,” was a first-rate reality based thriller. Some of Mr. Coonts’ more recent best-sellers were Ludlum School books. His latest, “The Assassin,” descends to the assembly line category.

“The Assassin” is an evocative work, in that there’s almost nothing original about it. There are traces of TV series like “Sleeper Cell,” and “The Unit,” whiffs of movies - Clint Eastwood’s “In the Line of Fire” and John Frankenheimer’s “Ronin” come to mind - as do hints of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon Ubermenchen characters of Vince Flynn and Brad Thor’s best-selling fantasies.

One vexing aspect of “The Assassin” is Mr. Coonts’ constant change of focus. Roughly half the novel is written from the viewpoint of the omniscient author; that is to say in the third person. The remainder is first-person prose narrated by a CIA operative named Tommy Carmellini, the troubleshooter for Jake Grafton, the maverick jet-jockey Naval Aviator of “Flight of the Intruder.” Now an irascible graybeard admiral, Grafton heads CIA’s European Operations.

It is an understandable, if awkward, literary trompe l’oeil. After all, Grafton, Mr. Coonts’ original Franchise Character, is chronologically too old to perform the action-adventure shtick demanded by the genre. And so Grafton becomes the puppeteer, Carmellini takes the lumps, and Mr. Coonts - whose author photo bears an uncanny resemblance to TV host Robin Leach - can still refer to his books as Jake Grafton novels, thus keeping the franchise alive and the money rolling in.

The plot of “The Assassins” begins optimistically with a credible situation and a plausible scenario. Huntington Winchester, a wealthy businessman, friend of the president, and father who has lost his soldier son in Iraq to an al Qaeda bomber, believes that many Americans “view the war on terror as a nuisance, something that doesn’t really affect us.” Winchester tells the president he’s put together a group of six “businessmen, bankers, and shippers. The thought occurred to us that locked somewhere in the records of our daily businesses are the money trails that terrorists leave behind whenever they move money or material across borders.”

Winchester’s plan: He and his wealthy friends, three Americans — two of them bankers — a German shipping magnate, and a Swiss and a French banker, will covertly fund a government operation that data-mines the money trails and targets the terrorists. But things go wrong from the get-go. The plotters blab on open phone lines and tell their families what they’re up to. The CIA bureaucracy hems and haws and denies needed support.

Mr. Coonts’ villain, a virulent Islamist named Abu Qasim, quickly penetrates the plot. Abu Qasim’s hired gun, a no-goodnik named Khadr, starts killing off the financiers one by one, and Admiral Grafton assigns Tommy Carmellini the job of protecting the plotters.

That’s where things start to unravel. Since “The Assassin” is one of those written-by-the-numbers novels, the Villain does just about everything right and the good guys do just about everything wrong until it’s time for the Big Action Scene that comes just before the Denouement. And so, secret agent Carmellini makes operational mistakes that even a greenhorn just out of The Farm, CIA’s training facility near Williamsburg, Va. wouldn’t make. And so, “experienced” Special Forces operatives literally go to sleep on the job in the middle of an attack on their protectees. And so, and so, and so.

“The Assassin” requires more of readers than mere willing suspension of disbelief. It requires willing suspension of just about everything.

An example: Carmellini is tasked to surveil a chateau. He does so from “the top floor of a nearby country inn … about a half a mile away” from the target. A hundred pages later, Abu Qasim surveils the same chateau. But he manages to do it from a “vantage point on the second floor of the chateau across the road from the … mansion. It was fortuitously empty; the owners were spending the winter in their condo in Martinique, as they did every year.”

Which is better, half a mile or across the street? Duh.

Carmellini, who at one point manages to shoot the wrong person dead, is even dumber than the real CIA operatives who, attempting a rendition snatch of a suspected al Qaeda operative in Milan, Italy, used traceable credit cards and cell phones, making it easy for the Italian authorities to track their every move. But since Carmellini’s the hero of the novel, I don’t think Mr. Coonts really intended him to be so obtuse or dim-witted.

Then there’s the matter of local color. Mr. Coonts sets much of his novel in Paris. Except you’d never know it, because there’s none of the ambience associated with that magical City of Light. “Jean’s taxi crossed the Seine and entered the Left Bank area” is about as specific as Mr. Coonts ever gets. C’est dommage, hein?

Another troublesome element is the way things … just happen. Abu Qasim and his killer Khadr simply … show up. They appear magically, like wraiths, in London’s St. James’ Park (coming, by the way, through a 19th-century pea-soup fog as thick as any in the 1940s Sherlock Holmes movies) to kill a CIA agent.

Oh, and let’s not forget the unexplained fact that Abu Qasim, a devout Islamist Muslim Arab, speaks the Queen’s English, native New Yorkese, Parisian French, and Arabic, all effortlessly. So from whom did Qasim pick up his polyglotism, Jason Bourne?

And finally, there’s the Denouement, a deus ex pistola affair in which Mr. Coonts successfully secretes a weapon in a dining room swept by half a dozen law enforcement agencies prior to a presidential appearance, and has a druggist-a druggist!-make up, at a moment’s notice, the antidote for a sophisticated, complex deadly Russian poison.

It is absurd sequences like these that make one long for the taut, authentic prose of Andy McNab’s Nick Stone novels. Mr. McNab turns out reality-based thrillers that are fun to read and keep you on the edge of your seat.

And that’s the bottom line of these sorts of books: Fun. Andy McNab is fun to read. So, occasionally, are Brad Thor and Vince Flynn. So — always — was Robert Ludlum. “The Assassin” is neither fun, nor fantasy. Maybe it’s time for Mr. Coonts to put Jake Grafton and Tommy Carmellini out to pasture.

John Weisman’s most recent CIA novel, “Direct Action,” is available from Avon Books. He can be reached at [email protected] johnweisman.com.

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