As an avid reader of contemporary fiction, I'm wary of two phrases that tend to raise a red flag with me: "Suitable for all ages" and "Christian fiction."
The former generally means the book is either so benign that it's devoid of reality, while the latter usually signals a warning that sermonizing and pat plot resolutions lie ahead.
But two terrific writers — an acclaimed veteran thriller writer and a legendary veteran federal agent whose life could be the basis for several thrillers — neatly avoid those pitfalls without sacrificing immediacy or suspense.
Edgar Award-winning mystery writer Andrew Klavan and first-time novelist Bob Hamer, a retired undercover FBI agent, each has produced an exciting thriller that is appropriate for teens and their elders. Their new books would be equally at home on the mystery section shelf at Barnes and Noble and at Family Christian Stores; and best of all, neither insults the reader's intelligence nor spends more time preaching than entertaining.
Klavan's The Long Way Home, is the second entry in his "Homelanders" series, which is about a young man trying to clear his name on murder charges while fighting a group of homegrown Islamofascist terrorists. That sounds like a tall order for a high school senior, but that's only the half of it — Charlie West can't remember any details of the past year that got him into this fine mess.
But Charlie's partial amnesia isn't the most unusual thing about him in the very girl-oriented world of "Young Adult Fiction." He's a guy, but not a misunderstood bookworm or awkward geek—and he's not about to be thrust into a world of magic. Charlie is a church-going, patriotic, athletic and popular kid. And, fortunately for his current predicament, his sport is karate, not football.
As The Last Thing I Remember, the series' first book, opened, Charlie was being tortured by terrorists without a clue about how he got there. He spent the rest of the book running for his life at a pace that would exhaust Richard Kimble.
Charlie's still on the lam from both the police and the Homelander terrorist group, and there are still a satisfying amount of action set pieces (including a great escape from a killer in a library that turns into a flight from a whole police department), but The Long Way Home gives us time to take a breath as Charlie secretly returns to his home town.
As he enlists his loyal friends — and his dream girl, who he frustratingly finds out fell in love with him during the year of his life that he can't remember — the tale allows for more character development and rounds out Charlie's emotional life for the reader. Stories of the hero who returns home to right past wrongs fill a niche in classic mystery lore, and Klavan does a fine job in adapting it for a younger audience.
Think Memento meets The Fugitive, spiced with the plot twists and relentless suspense of 24 and just a touch of the classic kid mysteries like The Hardy Boys, and you'll have an idea of the treat in store when you pick up Klavan's Homelanders novels.
Hamer, meanwhile, is certainly following the old saw to "write what you know about." His nonfiction debut, The Last Undercover, was about his five-year infiltration of the pro-pedophile group NAMBLA. Among his other real-life adventures are posing as an arms dealer with the Russian mob and busting the world's largest counterfeiting ring run by the North Koreans. But he chose a different yarn to launch his career in fiction.
Enemies Among Us is a crackerjack novel about undercover FBI agent Matt Hogan's investigation of a charity that may be providing covert funding for terrorists. His superiors have become worried that Hogan is becoming overly aggressive and even reckless in the field, so they assign him the nice, quiet case of checking out a charitable clinic that may have ties to bad guys. Of course, the assignment turns out to be as dangerous as any he's ever taken.
Hamer brings a wealth of inside knowledge and telling detail to his story. The twist is that the suspicious charity is run by Christians, rather than the usual Muslim suspects, and we don't know if the clinic's staff is filled with allies or dupes of the terrorists.
The veteran FBI agent also paints a realistic portrait of the bureaucratic and legal hoops that agents must jump through in order to pursue the bad guys. Warrants aren't issued on the spot while the agent is driving across town in hot pursuit, and getting instant lab results on forensic evidence.
Enemies Among Us is the first novel to be published under Ollie North's Fidelis imprint, a new Christian publishing house that aims to be a little grittier and less overtly preachy than their brethren. Enemies is the perfect start.
Unlike most books in the genre, Matt is struggling with his faith, while his wife is the steadfast one. The Hogans have a very healthy (off-scene) love life, and the book does not stop dead in its tracks to sermonize even when it would seem perfectly natural to do so. The characters' ideological and spiritual struggles are seamlessly woven into the story in a way that is perfectly natural, which makes the characters come alive instead of killing the pace of the narrative.
The Long Way Home and Enemies Among Us are exemplary in the way the authors make their points without stacking the dramatic deck or overt sermonizing– and they can be enjoyed by all ages. In these cases, that's a good thing.