- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

BLACK OPS: A PRESIDENTIAL AGENT NOVEL
By W.E.B. Griffin
Putnam, $26.95, 454 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN WEISMAN

It’s been about a year since W.E.B. Griffin released the third volume of his “Presidential Agent” series, “The Hunters.” In that time, Mr. Griffin has managed to turn out a bunch of new books, including two featuring his presidential agent-cum-West Point grad-cum-Delta Force officer-cum-super spy-cum-pilot-cum-polyglot super hero, Lieutenant Colonel C.G. Castillo (a.k.a. Karl Wilhelm von und zu Grossinger, heir to a German newspaper empire), and Castillo’s faithful sidekick and constant companion, Max the Bouvier des Flandres. The most recent of these, volume five of the Presidential Agent series and titled “Black Ops,” hit the bookstores in early 2009. It is a best-seller.

So far as I am concerned, the book is also absolute proof that there is very little real editing going on anymore at most of the New York publishing houses. Because any good editor -probably even any not-so-good editor — would have caught Mr. Griffin’s gaffe of misidentifying a Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver as a .357. Editors who edit action thrillers should know that the Model 29 is a .44 Magnum, Dirty Harry Callahan’s weapon of choice and, as Harry is fond of saying, even though the claim’s not accurate anymore, “The most powerful handgun in the world.”

Nor would a good editor have allowed Mr. Griffin to insert 18 straight pages of back-story at the top of the book — dumping it in great gobs of leaden prose and killing any forward motion. Nor would a good editor have allowed Mr. Griffin to describe an exceptionally sexy — extraordinarily sexy — female’s buttock as a “pink, fleshy orb.”

Nor for that matter would a good editor have allowed Mr. Griffin to foist on readers any sentence that reads: “Castillo knew that Duffy remained furious about the assassination attempt on Christmas Eve on Duffy and his family and while Castillo had almost identified the SVR officer who had organized and probably participated in that, he would have to check with Berezovsky before he was sure.” You want a challenge? Try diagramming that sentence.

Or the one that goes: “Subpara lowercase ii, would be deeply offended if Our Leader — known to the Secret Service as ‘Don Juan’ — as I really expected to hear just now when he returned to our little nest — has been pleasuring Podpolknik Alekseeva simply to get her to talk — or simply for fun — rather than as a manifestation of his intention to marry the lady when that is possible, and thereafter to walk hand in hand and in the fear of God in the bonds of holy matrimony until death do them part.”

No, I am not making this up. Mr. Griffin got paid money to write those words.

Now, Mr. Griffin has made marginal improvements over the past year. Much of this book, just like last year’s “The Hunters,” is set in and around Buenos Aires, one of the most alive and describable cities in the world. In “The Hunters,” Mr. Griffin never touched on the city’s many sights, pleasures and smells. In that book, Porteño cuisine was reduced to — and I quote — “cold cuts.” In “Black Ops,” Mr. Griffin manages to let readers know that Argentine wines are eminently drinkable, and that Argentine beef is indeed the best in the world. What is still lacking, however, is any sense of ‘being there.’ In fact, sensory omission is a consistent flaw in Mr. Griffin’s prose. He time-stamps his chapters in exotic locations, but for all the local color he inserts in these books, we could be anywhere — or nowhere. Buenos Aires, Hesse (Germany), Vienna, they all seem very much the same because there’s very little attention to the details of what life in those places is like — the warp and weave, the ebb and flow, the whole bloody gestalt. It is infuriating.

Mr. Griffin also makes a bizarre choice when it comes to inventing a pet name for Col. Castillo’s love interest, a beautiful Russian intelligence operative named Lieutenant Colonel Svetlana Alekseeva. Col. Castillo lovingly calls her “Svet.” As in Svet pants. As in Svet socks. I bring this up because among Col. Castillo’s many alleged talents is his fluency in Russian (he also speaks Spanish, German, Hungarian, and Pashto, and probably five or six more). But here’s the thing: most any fluent Russian speaker would know that the most common affectionate diminutives for Svetlana are Svetushka, Svetka, Svetochka, or Lana.

The plot arc of the book begins with a series of murders — some successful, others not — in Germany, in Austria, in Philadelphia and in Buenos Aires. Then comes the defection of a pair of Russian intelligence officers who may or may not know whether the murders are connected, and who may indeed have been involved in them. Col. Castillo gets involved because he is the common thread between many of the intended victims. Soon thereafter, he uncovers a plot to wage bio-war against the United States. The bad guys must be taken out.

Simultaneously, Col. Castillo is fighting a battle for survival against high-ranking U.S. intelligence officials who want him fired, and all the while he must keep his black ops unit from being bureaucratically dismembered. There is good news/bad news in this situation. The good news is that at the end of the book, Mr. Griffin engineers Castillo’s forced retirement as the Presidential Agent. The bad news is that Mr. Griffin telegraphs in big bold letters that Col. Castillo et. al. will be back as independent contractors. Blackwater on steroids.

More bad news because here’s the problem: “Black Ops” is allegedly an action adventure book, but we are sadly more than halfway through the novel before we see any action or sense any adventure. So far as I’m concerned, this is the fatal flaw of this series.

One reason is that Mr. Griffin never says anything in 50 words he can say in 500. And there’s been no editor to slap his wrist and tell him to stop meandering and move things along. The result is a book that is almost all what’s known as ‘Tell Me,” which is writer-speak for plodding, slow-paced, redundant, stultifying prose, and very, very little of what’s known in the book-writing trade as ‘Show Me,’ which is the kind of high-energy, cinematic action stuff that grabs readers by the lapels and leaves ‘em begging for more.

The only logical conclusion is that Mr. Griffin is not really writing these books. Oh, he is typing the words, and he is producing a product. But he is not crafting. There is very little evidence of rewriting, of polishing, of reworking, so that ultimately the book will read — vroom-vroom the way a BMW handles. Like Robert Ludlum. Like Len Deighton. Like Brian Freemantle. Like John D. MacDonald. Like Don Westlake. Their prose? Vroom-vroom. That is not the case here. If this book were a car, it would be a Trabant.

John Weisman’s most recent novels, “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action,” are all available as Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at [email protected]

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