In my review of The Devil’s Halo by Chris Fox I raised the following question:
Here is an interesting question: Can you raise serious issues or ideas in a paperback thriller? Now I am not talking about a literary novel that uses aspects of the thriller genre. I know books that often get classified as genre fiction deal with serious ideas. No, I am more interested in whether the kind of book you might take to the beach or read on the commute to work can contain some serious ideas underneath the action driven plot.
This issue came up again recently while I was reading The Second Horseman by Kyle Mills. While Devil’s Halo was more of techno thriller, and Second Horseman is a political one, both raise interesting questions in the course of their fast paced action driven plots.
2nd Horseman’s lead character is Brandon Vale, a talented thief and con man currently serving time for a crime he didn’t commit. Vale is content just to serve his time and start over again once on the outside. But when a mysterious group arranges his escape and offers him a job things get complicated.
It turns out the man who arranged his escape is Richard Scanlon, a former FBI agent and currently head of a Vegas-based intelligence contractor, the man who framed Vale in the first place. Scanlon offers Vale the easy life on a South African vineyard if he can pull off a job. The problem is the job involves stealing $200 million dollars from Vegas casinos and exchanging the money for twelve nuclear warheads held by a Ukrainian crime syndicate.
Mills further complicates things with a twist that involves a National Security Adviser with a Machiavellian plan to use Scanlon’s nukes to forever alter the Middle East and international relations.
Like many thrillers the story grows more improbable, and the international repercussions more significant, as the plot moves forward. There are plenty of twists and turns to keep the tension high. Vale is a likable character and his wry sense of humor keeps the story from getting too heavy; which is a danger given the subject matter.
What I thought gave it a slightly different feel, and what made me think of the Devil’s Halo issue raised above, is that the story frequently touches on the political debates of today. The issue of whether America’s War on Terror – and the war in Iraq – creates more terrorists than it destroys; the possibility of peace in the Middle East and particularly the seemingly intractable Palestinian Israeli conflict; nuclear proliferation; and the focus on rogue states; all of these issues are raised in various guises. And Mills doesn’t simply lecture to the reader through his characters. Instead the character’s experiences and perspective lead them to voice these ideas as part of the larger narrative. Mills doesn’t set it up so it is clear that the good guys have the right ideas and the bad guys the wrong ones either.
Clearly, the secret plot that unfolds is the work of someone who has lost their tether to reality, but some of their arguments and ideas nevertheless have real power. It wasn’t clear to me that Mills was trying to make a point or whether he was just using the debate about America’s role in the world, and its actions in the War on Terror, as an interesting backdrop for power politics and international intrigue. If there was a point that came through it was that government isn’t all that competent and that solutions are always fraught with compromise. Although, the dialog did seem to slant toward a view that an over-reliance on military force and retaliation only leads to an escalation in terrorism.
I haven’t read any of Mills work previously, but Publishers Weekly refers to his “familiar doomsday theme with caper-novel particulars.” Seems like a good description of the mix of ingredients. Whatever you call it, and whatever your perspective on terrorism, if you like fast paced international thrillers with a sense of humor I think you will enjoy The Second Horseman. You might get depressed thinking about the state of the world, but on the other hand you might as well enjoy an entertaining book before the world comes to an end.