By Noah Boyd
William Morrow, 24.99, 392 pages
Former FBI special agent Paul Lindsay’s first novel, 2010’s “The Bricklayer,” written under the pseudonym Noah Boyd, was an impressive debut. It was a tautly written, well-constructed novel that moved quickly and engagingly. Mr. Lindsay’s hero, Steve Vail, was just about everything an action-adventure hero should be. Vail’s foil, FBI Assistant Director Kate Bannon, was handled deftly, and the banter between them was the kind of quasi “Thin Man” repartee that was an entertaining breath of fresh air for these sorts of action/procedural novels.
Mr. Lindsay, aka Mr. Boyd, is back again this spring with his second Bricklayer novel, “Agent X.” I am sorry to report that while his second effort starts out nicely - bricklayer and gumshoe Vail solves two kidnappings by Page 35 - the second book lacks the energy, wit and gritty verisimilitude of the first. Indeed, “Agent X” reads kinda sorta like the first draft of a generic action cum crime cum spy novel manuscript.
Think of it as Lee Child lite. In fact, both Mr. Lindsay and Mr. Child make the same fundamental mistake when describing the Glock series of pistols. Both authors think Glocks have manual safeties - the kinds that click on and off, which, of course, they do not.
The difference is that Mr. Child is a Brit and hails from a country where the gun laws are Stalinesque, while Mr. Lindsay is a former Marine and a 20-year bureau veteran. One expects - in vain, it turns out - that he would have at least a minimal familiarity with the weapon carried by many current FBI special agents.
The book revolves around counterintelligence, or CI, which, according to one current U.S. government definition, encompasses “activities conducted to protect against espionage, other intelligence activities, sabotage or assassinations conducted by foreign governments or elements thereof, foreign organizations, or foreign persons or international terrorist activities.”
In Vail’s case, it is a highly placed mole - or moles - no one knows. A high-ranking Russian intelligence officer, code name Calculus, has volunteered his services to the FBI. He promises the bureau a list of Americans spying for Moscow. His price: a quarter-million dollars for each U.S. traitor. But before he can deliver the list, Calculus disappears. A cryptic note leads the bureau to believe he has been summoned back to Moscow.
Not good. In the past, Soviets and Russians working as U.S. agents were recalled with the promise of promotions or other rewards only to be taken down into the bowels of the KGB’s old Dzerzhinsky Square headquarters, where they were fed Lubyanka breakfasts - cigarettes and bullets.
Where are the traitors? No one knows. The FBI could be infiltrated, its own counterintelligence division rendered transparent to America’s adversaries. And so Vail is summoned back to Washington and handed the case. After all, he’s an outsider - a no-nonsense renegade who detests the bureau and its managerial cadre of sycophantic, bureaucratic, group-thinking suits.
The first few chapters are promising. Mr. Lindsay, the ventriloquist, delivers some lovely nuggets of real-life investigatory wisdom through his creation Vail’s jaundiced lines. “Tips,” Vail understands, “are a double-edged sword. While they frequently solve a case, a false lead that looked promising could be distracting, take the entire department in the wrong direction, and burn precious time.” True. Absolutely true.
Early on, Vail’s CI capabilities appear to be strong. “Sometimes in the spy business, your opponents will run a game on you. They’ll salt the mines with borderline information to convince you they’re on your side. And if they’re good, they can wind up getting more information from you than you get from them.” Once again, all true.
The first third of the book contains occasional flashes of the lovely dialogue between Vail and Kate Bannon that filled Mr. Lindsay’s first Noah Boyd novel: “How did you get into [that] file,” Bannon demands to know. Replies Vail: “You let me watch your hands when you logged into the Bureau database yesterday, so I thought you were giving me your password.”
But when the mole hunt begins in earnest, Mr. Lindsay lets us down. Instead of creating an alternative universe in which the suspense builds inexorably to the book’s denouement, Mr. Lindsay bogs down in endless “tell me” sequences filled with lead-weight prose, naive suppositions, execrable tradecraft and just plain character dumbness.
At one point about three-quarters of the way through the book, Mr. Lindsay stops the action cold to give one of his characters - and all his readers - a one-page recap of the plot thus far. It’s a bush-league mistake his editor never should have allowed.
His action sequences are embarrassing: “Vail crawled around Bursaw and watched the cottage that was to their ten o’clock. Then he was up, running and firing. Behind him the shotgun exploded, the massive slug thudding into the car that the two LCS men were using as cover, causing them to squat further down. Kate was off at a dead run in the one o’clock direction Vail had suggested.”
Flaccid, “tell me” writing like this makes one think Mr. Lindsay should spend more time watching Sam Pekinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” or any of the Jason Bourne movies to get a sense of what cinematically written action scenes are all about. Even Vince Flynn does violence better than this.
What should have been a gangbusters denouement deteriorates into what experienced action-novel writers might call “the full Lex Luthor.” That’s when the bad guy holds a gun (or some Kryptonite) on the good guy and tells him everything he was going to do and why.
Bottom line? The one nagging question that remains after struggling through “Agent X” is: Where, oh where, was Mr. Lindsay’s editor? “It is,” as the late Yul Brynner once announced on Broadway, eight shows a week, “a puzzlement.”
John Weisman’s latest novels, “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action,” are available as Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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