As we huddle by the fire and wait for global warming to finally kick in, here's a list of 12 ways to spend the days of Christmas-- or warm the heart of the pop fiction reader on your gift list. There may be the occasional lord a'leaping or even a lady dancing; and more hawks than any kind of doves-- turtle or otherwise-- with a refreshing lack of liberal cliches.
Empire of Lies
By Andrew Klavan
An Associated Press reviewer recently sneered about Andrew Klavan and his latest thriller, Empire of Lies (Harcourt, $25), in which a middle American Christian man with a dark past is drawn into a terrorist conspiracy:
"Klavan occupies the portion of the political spectrum commonly known as right-wing crackpot. Through Harrow he tells us, among other things, that the entire media is a left-wing conspiracy, that taxes steal from the rich to give to the poor, that America is in a holy war with Islam, that the truth about darned near everything in the United States is obscured by a blizzard of politically correct lies and that anyone who disagrees with him is deluded."
All you might need to know about Klavan is that he posted this review on his website in the place most authors reserve for rave reviews.His comment: "Uh, yeah? And? Where's the problem?"
Empire of Lies dares to posit that a radical professor at an American university who preaches violence against the United States and defends Islamist terrorists just might mean it — and act on it. Talk about your Most Dangerous Academics …
The book had me at "hello," as the narrator, Jason Harrow, introduces himself thusly:
"You've probably heard of me in connection with the End of Civilization as We Know It. Unfortunately, if you get your news from the mainstream media -- the television networks and the Times and so on -- much of what you've heard has been distorted or is downright untrue. You know how that goes. If I had been some left-leaning crackpot who blamed America for being under attack, no doubt they'd have portrayed me as a hero, likely given me some neo-superman nickname like "Peace Dad" or "Heartland Patriot," as in "Heartland Patriot Assails American Foreign Policy." Even if I'd been an Islamo-fascist madman plotting to slaughter the innocent in their thousands, they'd have at least made me out to be a victim of some sort, a hapless product of Western imperialism, something like that, whatever.
"But because I'm a political conservative and, even worse, a believing Christian, the networks and the Times and all the rest have consistently depicted me as small-minded and pinch-hearted, a bigot and an ill-educated fool. ..."
Empire of Lies is at times wickedly funny -- as when a thinly veiled William Shatner-like character stumbles onto the terrorist plot but self-destructs in the face of PC pressure -- but other moments are deeply affecting, as when Harrow is confronted with a daughter he didn't know he had and is torn between his faith and the temptations of his past.
The tale is marvelously entertaining from start to finish, a stand-up-and-cheer lambasting of a media-driven culture and the absolute wrong-headedness of the default settings of its assumptions. Take it from a right-wing crackpot, 'tis the thriller of the season.
By Vince Flynn
As anyone who has watched an NFC Football game on Fox this Fall knows, 24's Jack Bauer is about to be hauled in front of a congressional committee for putting American lives ahead of terrorists' civil rights.
In Vince Flynn's latest blockbuster, Extreme Measures (Atria, $27.95), he puts Mitch Rapp his terrorist-fighting hero, through the same paces. But while Jack Bauer traveled the world kicking butt and avoiding his federal subpoena, Mitch is as eager to do verbal battle with America's domestic enemies as he normally is for physical combat with foreign foes.
The problem is, while Mitch is defending the forceful way in which he obtains information about a highly trained Islamist terrorist strike team, it takes him away from using the intelligence. All the while, the terrorists are closing in on their target.
While Extreme Measures sometimes makes Empire of Lies seem subtle, you don't read Flynn for nuance any more than you watch a Dirty Harry movie for sociology lessons. Flynn is a talented storyteller who keeps the pages turning and the patriotic juices flowing in a way that few can — and even fewer try.
By Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzullo.
A more realistic look at the CIA is found in The Walk-In (Crown, $24.95). Gary Bertsen, one of the CIA paramilitary operators who toppled the Taliban, and Ralph Pezzullo, his Jawbreaker co-writer, bring us their first thriller, which involves a CIA agent who has to go rogue to protect the country from a terror attack while bureaucrats dither and protect their turf.
In the Cold War, a major concern about "walk-in" defectors was making sure they were not merely KGB plants hoping to spread disinformation. When facing an enemy for whom suicide missions are the favored tactic, counterterrorism officer Matt Freed is even less willing to take an Iranian defector's information about an imminent terrorist strike at face value.
While the rest of Washington is battening down the hatches, protecting turf and engaging in various forms of CYA, Freed decides to backtrack the Iranian, wondering why he was visiting restricted areas in Muslim countries of the former Soviet Bloc on his way to the U.S.
The Walk-In is a tense and timely thriller that shows Bernsten and Pezzullo have the potential to be as good a fiction writing team chronicling the war on Islamist terror, as they were in portraying real life events.
Your Heart Belongs to Me
By Dean Koontz
While Klavan and Flynn fluidly mix plots and polemics, perhaps no bestselling novelist has protested the darkness of the dominant elite leftist culture more boldly than Dean Koontz -- and it hasn't hurt his popularity one bit. His twice-yearly novels regularly rocket to the top of the bestseller list in their first week of publication.
In Your Heart Belongs to Me (Bantam, $27), a thiller with a pro-life theme, a fabulously wealthy Internet entrepreneur who is crazy in love with the girl of his dreams, has his world collapse when he is diagnosed with a deadly heart defect and needs a transplant.
When his doctor causually mentions that poisoning is a possible — if unlikely — cause of his ailment, Ryan Perry embarks on a paranoid investigation of everyone close to him. He knows his girlfriend is estranged from her mother, who pulled the feeding tube from her twin sister in a Terry Schiavo-like case. His investigation reveals the mother is also the lover of a seriously creepy death advocate — but what does that have to do with anything?
Ultimately, Koontz challenges us to ponder what deals or compromises we are willing to make with murderous evil for commercial advantage — or even to save our own lives.
Whatever you do, do not read the book jacket or Amazon's summary of this story. Both ridiculously summarize more than the first half of the book -- including several big twists -- which will greatly diminish your enjoyment of this engaging, suspenseful and heartfelt thriller.
By Jonathan Kellerman
While Jonathan Kellerman has written several thrillers with pro-life plots in recent years, his newest, Bones (Ballantine, $27), concerns murders with a more common motive.
This is Kellerman's 23rd Alex Delaware thriller and is his customarily good read as Delaware, a police psychologist, and Milo Sturgis, an LAPD detective and his best friend, the try to find out who is dumping the corpses of women in a protected wetland.
Kellerman's contempt for those with a cheap view of human life shines through in the character of a radical environmentalist who is so obsessed with protecting the bog that he does not consider digging for remains of murder victims reason enough to "disturb" his pet ecosystem. Bones is Kellerman in good form -- witty, intelligent, suspenseful and humane.
By George Pelecanos
Like Richard Price, another writing alumnus of HBO's late great "The Wire," George Pelecanos offers readers a beautifully done urban noir novel that challenges media templates about "racially charged" crimes.
In The Turnaround (Little, Brown, $24.99), Pelecanos tells the story of two survivors —Alex Pappas, a white man, and Raymond Monroe, a black man -- of a 1972 incident in which three drunken white kids drive into the wrong D.C. neighborhood trying to prove their manhood. Alex, who was basically in the car against his will, is badly beaten and one of his pals is killed.
Jump to the present, and Alex runs his father's diner. Grieving for his son killed in Iraq, he volunteers at Walter Reed Hospital, where he runs into Raymond, a passive participant in that fateful incident. Raymond is a physical therapist whose son is serving in Iraq.
Raymond initiates a reconciliation, and the two form an uneas friendshop. Raymond, however, has another motive: trying to head off his brother, who did a long prison term for the killing that night,and is out for revenge.
As in his last great book, The Night Gardner, Pelecanos posits that crime and social decay are less about race than family, and strong fathers are the best cure for social ills. Pelecanos has a great way with dialogue, setting and crafting fully believable human beings -- you don't seem to read his his books; it feels more like you are eavesdroping on his characters. George Pelecanos is a major American writer, regardless of genre, and on the cusp of becoming a great one.
By John Hart
Speaking of media templates, Adam Chase -- the hero of Down River (St. Martin's Minotaur, $7.99), John Hart's latest superb Southern-fried thriller -- is the white son of privilege of Duke persecutor Michael Nifong's imagination. And he's just as innocent.
This paperback reprint is a perfect stocking stuffer-- or gift for the mystery lover you don't spend 25 bucks on. A prime example of the prodigal returns subgenre of mystery fiction, this moody and atmospheric story is what John Grisham wishes he could write like. Adam's quest to clear his name of both an old and new murder makes for one of the year's most satisfying mysteries.
The Brass Verdict
By Michael Connelly
Justifiably hailed as the greatest mystery writer of his generation, Michael Connelly shows a lighter side in The Brass Verdict, (Little, Brown, $26.99). A sequel of sorts to The Lincoln Lawyer, in which he introduced ambulance chaser Mickey Haller, Connelly brings his signature hero, LAPD's Harry Bosch, into the mix this time. The result is a complex, extremely well executed mystery thriller.
Haller inherits the practice of a murdered colleague and, along with it, the latest Hollywood celebrity murder trial. There are echoes of O.J. and Robert Blake throughout the novel. While Haller says early on, "A trial is a contest of lies, and everyone in the courtroom knows that," Connelly (and Bosch) are moralists. And, deep down, Haller also seeks justice, not just a big win. Great stuff.
Envy the Night
By Michael Koryta
Michael Koryta's top-notch noirish thrillers set in the Great Lakes region have the 30 year-old author already being hailed as the Michael Connelly of the Midwest. He solidifies that reputation wiith Envy the Night (St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95).
This tale of a good guy with a dark past, a nice small-town girl who gets mixed up with him and a vicious killer looking for revenge has echoes of the Robert Mitchum/Kirk Douglas film noir classic, Out of the Past — not a comparison I make lightly. It's time to quit thinking of Koryta as the next big thing. He's arrived.
Night of Thunder
By Stephen Hunter
"Bob Lee Swagger Goes NASCAR" might sound like a pitch for a sequel to Shooter, the thoroughly awful adaptation of Stephen Hunter's thriller, Point of Impact. But if Night of Thunder is filmed, it won't feature Mark Wahlberg spouting leftist rants — not without major changes, anyway.
Swagger, a Vietnam vet and accomplished Marine sniper, is feeling his age in this one, as he works to find out who tried to murder his daughter, a reporter who goes into a coma after a hit man runs her off the road in backwoods Tennessee, a hotbed of NASCAR activity. We soon learn about the nefarious, in-bred clan that's behind the plot, but Hunter skillfully keeps Swagger -- and us -- in the dark about what the gang's really after.
This is slighter than most of Hunter's efforts, but like the rest of the Swagger books (about both father and son) it's a tribute to the American fighting man — who, even creaking with age, is still tougher than a redneck crime ring. This is great fun, particularly the shoot- and smash-'em-up ending.
The Fire Kimono
By Laura Joh Rowland
Multicultural absolutists will have a hard time with Laura Joh Rowland's great mystery series set in late 1600s Japan. The feudal Samurai culture she portrays with its arbitrary tyranny and deep depravity certainly does not lend itself to moral equivalence arguments about other cultures. In fact, it makes James Clavel's Shogun portrait seem romantic.
The Fire Kimono (St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95) has Rowland back in top form after a weird turn into mysticism in her last book. Sano Ichiro and his beloved wife, Reiko, try to solve a decades-old murder while battling rivals in the court of an addled shogun, with the lives of their family at stake.
This is perhaps the best mystery series you've never heard of; there are a dozen great titles waiting to be discovered by a wider readership.
By Ralph Reed
Last, but (shockingly) not least, is Dark Horse (Howard Fiction, $19.99), a "political thriller" by former Christian Coalition face man Ralph Reed. Twenty years of professionally reviewing books for have made me allergic to novels written by people famous for things other than writing, whether it's a sports-themed mystery by a jock or a spy novel churned out by a senator.
But Reed's yarn about a third-party presidential campaign avoids the pedantic dullness of political thrillers by ex-Sens. Gary Hart or Bill Cohen and the partisan campiness of those by former Second Lady Marilyn Quayle.
Dark Horse posits a scenario in which a northeastern liberal swipes the presidential nomination from the moderate Democrat governor of California at the convention. When the Republicans end up with a pro-abortion, pro-gay rights nominee, the door opens for a pro-life independent ticket. Terrorists also play a key role in the outcome.
Reed's book offers a refreshing lack of preachiness, shuns clunky expository dialogue and avoids presenting a saints-vs.-sinners milleu. The smart but vicious campaign fights are convincing and exciting.
Dark Horse won't make anyone forget Advise and Consent. But while Reed may be no Alan Drury, Fletcher "Seven Days in May" Knebel had a lengthy career writing books that weren't as good as this debut. It's far more convincing than the novels Richard North Patterson has written since switching from legal to political thrillers.