If you're looking for entertainment options that include American heroes taking on Islamist terrorists, then don't wait for the movies. For the most part, filmmakers are Missing In Action in the War on Terror (with the exceptions of The Kingdom and Vantage Point). Television, which seems to be more market-driven, has done much better with shows like 24, JAG, Sleeper Cell, NCIS, and The Unit, taking on terrorists with varying degrees of seriousness and frequency. Even lighter fare, such as Chuck and Burn Notice, makes frequent references to America's real enemies.
But the most entertaining and serious efforts to address the War on Terror in the realm of pop culture come from novelists.
Near the end of the Cold War, the military procedural — a.k.a. the technothriller — occupied the top of bestseller lists, largely thanks to Tom Clancy. Among the more successful of the Clancy imitators was former Navy pilot Stephen Coonts, whose excellent Flight of the Intruder was the second novel to be published by Naval Institute Press (after Clancy's Hunt for Red October).
But what has really impaired Coonts's books is the fact that it's increasingly difficult to come up with compelling airpower scenarios for fighting the terrorist threat.
On the espionage front, John le Carré has become a shrill shill for the Left, and Big Pharma (as in the ludicrous, unreadable Constant Gardener) is a far less compelling villain than KGB spymaster Karla. You would think that the author of The Little Drummer Girl could adapt better. But then I always suspected that more le Carré books were sold than actually read, anyway. Meanwhile, the masterful Len Deighton, who delivered a constant stream of classics from The Ipcress File onward, all but disappeared when the Berlin Wall fell.
But military and espionage thrillers are alive and well, with a mostly new set of authors who deliver action and suspense, debate the issues, and give us a window into the covert world. Readers have good choices, no matter what elements they prefer.
In 1999, when James W. Huston published his first novel, Balance of Power, it was immediately dubbed a "technothriller." But this former "Top Gun" F-14 pilot and big-shot trial attorney was already taking on the issues that would frame the global war on terror (GWOT). Huston's debut and its sequel, The Price of Power, debated whether Congress could still issue a letter of marque to a Navy carrier battle group when a pacifist president refuses to respond to an attack by Islamic terrorists in the South Pacific.
Next, in Flash Point, he dramatized the issue of whether the U.S. could declare war on an individual (a bin Laden-like figure) who attacks American military forces. He also theorized, in 2001's Fallout, that the most effective terrorist attack might come from jihadists enrolled in a flight school to use planes in a suicide attack from within the United States. Huston was on top of the arguments that dominated the post-9/11 debate: Each of these books, remember, was written before 9/11.
His post-9/11 novels, The Shadows of Power and Secret Justice, explored how far American covert operatives could and should go while pursuing terrorists, including a discussion of waterboarding that was slightly ahead of the talking-heads' curve. Huston's marvelously entertaining mix of brains and brawn — along with some nice on-air plugs from Rush Limbaugh — had him becoming a fixture on bestseller lists before some health issues sidelined his writing: Juggling his day job as a high-powered trial attorney and the book-a-year contract grind was temporarily impossible.
Huston returns this month with a new thriller, Marine One. To tell you whether this book has a GWOT theme would be a major plot spoiler. Let's just leave this sneak preview at welcoming James Huston back to form in a typically fast-moving, intelligent political thriller that's full of surprises and insider knowledge.
Alex Berenson is further evidence that the New York Times editorial writers don't read their own foreign correspondents. Anyone who read the dispatches of Dexter Filkins (whose writings are collected in one of last year's best nonfiction titles, The Forever War) or Alex Berenson would certainly know who the enemies of humanity are in the world, and George W. Bush would not make the list.
In just three books, Berenson has covered the Axis of Evil — plus al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Russia, and China — and even tracked yellowcake smuggled out of Iraq. Berenson's latest bestseller, The Silent Man, displays all of his strengths as a writer, with an intelligent and suspenseful plot, and a wealth of authentic detail that shows that the author knows how the world works and how the people in his globe-trotting plot think and live. The main character uncovers a jihadist plot to explode a stolen Russian warhead in Washington, D.C.; one character, a doctor, is a "moderate" Muslim who allows himself to be used and does not have the courage to stand up. Berenson's thrillers are sophisticated, literate, and mostly believable. But don't let that stop you: They are gripping, suspenseful, and contain enough action to keep the pages turning.
Perhaps the most audacious novels about the jihadist threat come from crime-noir writer Robert Ferrigno, in his Assassins trilogy. In his first two installments — Prayers for the Assassin and Sins of the Assassin — Ferrigno projects a future in which the bad guys have won, and the Caliphate has been established in America. Ferrigno has created a scenario of societal breakdown and loss of faith, with Islam filling the void after a nuclear attack. Part social satire, part political intrigue, part action yarn, and all thrilling, the Assassins trilogy will be completed this summer by Heart of the Assassin. How disillusioned Islamic superwarrior Rakkim defeats the forces of evil and helps bring about unification of the United States will be one of the year's most anticipated events in popular fiction.
While le Carré and Deighton hogged the literary spotlight, I always preferred Gerald Seymour, a former British journalist who was just as smart, but a far more accessible storyteller. He concentrated on the hot little corners of the Cold War, like the Italian Red Brigades and Afghanistan — and repeatedly returned to the scene of his most famous novel, the IRA thriller Harry's Game. Seymour moved into the new world disorder without a hitch. In the '90s, he wrote Condition Black, a thriller about counterintelligence efforts to thwart Iraqi nuclear ambitions, and The Running Target, a spy story set in Iran. His two best GWOT books are the pre-9/11 A Line in the Sand and 2007's Rat Run. Both books show off his ability to put flawed, ordinary people in the extraordinary situation of saving civilization — or at least their corner of it.
Frederick Forsyth was well equipped for the mission of dominating post-9/11 bestseller lists — if he had chosen to accept it. Forsyth, of course, began his career with The Day of the Jackal, whose terrorist villains have their roots in the Algerian war. Only twice in his well- (sometimes over-) researched novels did he engage in the West-vs.-Soviets spy wars, in The Fourth Protocol and The Deceiver.
But after ruling the publishing world with Jackal, The Odessa File, and The Dogs of War, the enigmatic Forsyth began writing every few years when the mood struck him. He never achieved anything like his early success, but his most recent book, The Afghan, is easily his best book since The Deceiver, and is filled with the kind of authentic detail his readers crave. The story has SAS operative Mike Martin switching identities with an al-Qaeda terrorist held at Gitmo in order to infiltrate a terror group that is planning a massive strike.
Stella Rimington, the first female head of MI-5, writes very much like Gerald Seymour, with a focus on the human factor, while giving an insider's view of her former agency and its sometimes frustrating bureaucracy. Unlike the characters on the BBC television show, her MI-5 agents chase radical jihadists and Russian assassins, not radical pro-lifers. Check out her debut, At Risk, about a radicalized young British girl turned into a suicide bomber for al-Qaeda by a group of homegrown terrorists based in a radical mosque.
Another former covert operative who writes from experience is Gary Berntsen. While he is most famous for Jawbreaker, his memoir of the CIA paramilitary war in Afghanistan, he and his co-author, Ralph Pezzullo, have written what I hope is the first of a series of novels about a CIA operative who bears more than a passing resemblance to the author. The Walk-In finds our hero, Matt Freed, racing against time to figure out if a "moderate" Iranian who walks into a U.S. embassy with information about terrorist attacks is for real — or building a cover for a devastating attack on the United States. Meanwhile, back at HQ, CIA bureaucrats argue over turf, try to rein in Freed, and engage in CYA operations.
Vince Flynn is the big kahuna right now when it comes to the action side of counterterror fiction. His Mitch Rapp is a combination of Jack Bauer and Dirty Harry, who loves to mix it up with America's enemies, foreign and domestic. Rapp takes on Iranian thugs, Filipino jihadists, Saudi financiers, and U.S. senators with equal gusto. In his latest, Extreme Measures, Rapp is tied up doing verbal combat with liberal senators before a subcommittee while a jihadist commando team prepares to strike at the very heart of America's counterterrorist infrastructure.
The Mitch Rapp series is conservative wish fulfillment at its most adrenaline-filled. If you suspect that 24 is getting just a little soft, check out Vince Flynn.
You need a scorecard to keep up with William E. Butterfield III, a.k.a. W. E. B. Griffin, who is cranking out an astounding six action series at once: Honor Bound, Brotherhood of War, The Corps, Badge of Honor, Men at War, and Presidential Agent. These yarns range from adventures of the Marines and the OSS in World War II to stories of modern-day cops and counterterrorists.
Griffin's latest bestseller, Black Ops, is part of his Presidential Agent series, in which Delta Force operator Charley Castillo does the president's bidding to thwart terrorist acts. An earlier installment dealt with the Iraq Oil-for-Food scandal. This time out, Charlie takes out an Iranian bioweapons factory hidden in Congo.
Griffin's books are extremely genre-bound, with loads of jargon heaped onto serviceable prose. The characters and dialogue are stock, but Griffin knows his way around an action scene, though it sometimes feels like you have to get through a Jane's military-recognition guide to get there.
For those who prefer their military procedurals to rocket along with just enough technical jargon to keep it real, former B-1 pilot Chris Stewart fits the bill nicely. Far more realistic and exciting than Dale Brown or Richard Herman, Stewart is the unsung hero of the technothriller — and he has adapted well to current, rather than imaginary, threats.
His post-9/11 books include The Fourth War, which explores contingency plans for seizing Pakistan's nuclear arsenal should the government fall, and his latest, The God of War, a Firefox in reverse in which the bad guys steal America's latest superweapon at the Paris Air Show in order to use it to provoke a war against Israel. Without giving too much away, let's just say the shadowy figures aiding the jihadists in Stewart's plot are not the usual 24 corporate white guys, but fit a Robert Kagan view of the world's future adversaries.
Jack Coughlin may be the only author in this rundown whose personal body-count exceeds that of his fictional alter ego. In his memoir, Shooter, retired Gunnery Sgt. Coughlin, the top-ranked Marine sniper in Iraq, told his story along with Donald Davis, the co-author of his new thriller series starring Marine sniper Gunny Kyle Swanson. Shooter is not to be confused with the awful Mark Wahlberg movie, adapted from the novel Point of Impact by the great Stephen Hunter — though Coughlin and Davis's first novel, Kill Zone, has a few too many unfortunate similarities in plot and lead character.
Dead Shot, however, is right on target. Swanson and his covert team are assigned to find a bioweapons lab called "The Palace of Death," Saddam's final and most deadly secret. Opposing them is Juba, the jihadists' best sniper. The son of a naturalized Muslim doctor and a Scottish human-rights attorney, Juba was trained by the British army, then recruited by al-Qaeda. It's too early to put Coughlin and Davis in Stephen Hunter's literary rank, but since Hunter's heroes have sniped every kind of villain but Islamic terrorists, at this rate Kyle Swanson just might become the Bob Lee Swagger of the GWOT.
For lighter over-the-top action fun, Ted Bell is the rising star. Unlike a lot of writing in this genre, Bell's has style and panache to spare. His hero, Alex Hawke, makes Bond and Bourne look like pikers when it comes to derring-do.
In 2008, a trio of unlikely suspects made themselves far more likely to be invited to Manhattan cocktail parties by writing unconvincing screeds against the Iraq War or the War on Terror.
Five years ago, one would have expected mega-selling Nelson DeMille to be one of the first authors profiled above. From By the Waters of Babylon to The Lion's Game, DeMille took on Communists and jihadists in thrillers considered classics by conservative fiction readers. Then, in 2004's Night Fall, DeMille suddenly gave voice to TWA Flight 800 "truthers." That was only the beginning. In his 2006 flop Wild Fire, he theorized a super-patriotic, gun-loving bunch of racist neocons who meet in an upstate New York hunt club to plot nuking four American cities so they can go to war against the Arab world and drive up the price of oil. Among their members is a Defense Department official subtly named "Wolfer."
Lee Child went even further, with Nothing to Lose, the latest Jack Reacher yarn, which posits a ludicrous conspiracy by the U.S. military played out in a small desert town. Reacher, a combination of Mike Hammer and one of Louis L'Amour's chivalrous drifting gunfighters, was supposedly once part of a fanciful "elite MP unit." In recent books, Reacher has foiled an Iraqi attempt to assassinate the vice president and briefly thrown off his loner status to rejoin former colleagues in foiling an al-Qaeda plot. But in Nothing to Lose, the heretofore apolitical Reacher all of a sudden begins ranting like Michael Moore in what amounts to an anti–Iraq War screed. Perhaps the worst slander in the book is that wounded veterans are "garbage" to the U.S. military — but that's at the head of a long list.
John T. Lescroart wrote a smart series in which San Francisco trial lawyer Dismas Hardy, a former Marine and county prosecutor, and his best friend, homicide cop Abe Glitsky, battle crime and political correctness in the ultraliberal city. The best book in the series was The First Law, which argued in favor of preventive self-defense for individuals. But in 2008's Betrayal, Lescroart joins the chorus that takes a dim view of it for nations. The ludicrous, talky plot involves an inept guardsman blundering around Baghdad with no mission and being manipulated — and ultimately framed back home — by a private military contractor, in an obvious metaphor for the larger war.
BEST SUPPORTING CAST
On the other hand, a couple of our finer suspense writers have made a welcome foray into the GWOT turf. Master of suspense Andrew Klavan took his first plunge into the GWOT in Empire of Lies last summer, taking on the PC media, academic institutions that promote hate-America rhetoric, and the secularist moral equivalence of the pop culture in general. Klavan's reluctant hero is a conservative Christian everyman who stumbles into a conspiracy by a radical professor who advocates violence against America and plans to practice what he preaches. Guess who is considered the nut by the media and publicity-minded law enforcement?
Now, Klavan has a "Young Adult" thriller, The Last Thing I Remember, whose protagonist, Charlie West, is an equally compelling portrait of conservative heroism. This first book in a new series combines The Fugitive with Empire of Lies — and just a touch of Hardy Boys. Don't avoid it just because it was ostensibly written for teenagers.
The addictive bestseller Long Lost by Harlan Coben has series hero Myron Bolitar thrust into a conspiracy that involves a murdered CNN reporter, Middle Eastern gunmen, and the mysterious appearance of a girl whose DNA matches that of a long-dead toddler. Unfortunately, even telling you Long Lost belongs in this article is sort of a spoiler. Let's just say that Coben posits that there is an ideology in the world that treats women as though they were nothing more than wombs to be controlled by men and whose offspring are expendable to the cause — and it's not the dreaded neocons or the Christian Right.
So there's already a lot to read. And now that the Global War on Terror is "over," will some heretofore-silent Hollywood and publishing voices find merit in heroic stories about "Overseas Contingency Operations," with President Obama in the lead?