Thursday, 12 November 2015

Mark Greaney; On Target, Ballistic, Dead Eye

Courtland Gentry, in addition to having just the most ridiculous name of all time, is a guy you shouldn’t lend anything to. Also, these books are useless for curing insomnia (I SO hope that’s going to show up on the jacket copy of Greaney’s next book).

I’m about to discuss three dumb books rapidly one after another; if you’re the kind of person who worries about spoilers, you should be worried from here on in. Thrillers are all plot. I’m probably going to talk about that. And probably endings. Also, Snape kills Dumbledore, Rosebud’s a sled, Jack drowns, Kayser Soze is Verbal Kint and Lost doesn’t make any sense no matter how much it tries to. And Mulder never finds his sister.

A couple of weeks back, I read Mark Greaney’s goofy and not quite awful The Gray Man, and found myself thinking that the follow up books might be better because the most obvious thing wrong with the first book was the ridiculousness of the plot. And I was sort of right; the followup books are better, because Greaney goes on doing what was right with the first book, and does a lot less of what was wrong with it. But it’s still a matter of being better as thrillers rather than being any good as books; reading the four of them one after another reminded why I used to read a lot of thrillers and also reminded me why I stopped.

Courtland Gentry continues to be the world’s worst best assassin. His plans are terrible, which would probably matter more if he didn’t keep abandoning them on a whim. He’s the super spy for a disposable age, because he can’t hold onto anything for more than a couple of minutes, either throwing guns away as soon as they’re empty, breaking expensive electronics by falling on them, or just plain dropping things for no good reason; in Dead Eye he has radios, earpieces and night vision goggles just fall off him while he’s running around, as if he’s never even heard of velcro or rubber bands. It’s delightful in its way, but much and all as I love the fallibility, you have to wonder how he got the reputation for getting things done when nothing ever seems to go right for him. I suspect the problem is that Greaney’s trying to challenge him and so stuff has to keep going wrong.

So who’s doing what to whom? In On Target, the Gray Man goes to Sudan, with a pre-credit sequence set in a Dublin which hammers home that Greaney does his research by sitting at home with Google. The DART isn’t just NOT Dublin’s mass transit (it’s actually the same thing that Greaney describes as a train when Gentry uses it to get from Howth to the city centre) - it’s also the dumbest way I can think of to try to lose a possible tail. It’s a suburban train service with a single line and trains every half an hour. The idea that you could lose a tail by hopping on and off it … 

Mind you, once he hops off it, things get diddley-idley with shocking speed. I adored the description of the Padraig Pearse pub as “staunchly Catholic”. It’s a pub in Dublin. Ninety per cent of the population is nominally Catholic, and anyone who wants to be staunchly Catholic goes to church. Not The Church, mind you. That’s a decommissioned Church of Ireland church which got turned into a touristy pub on Henry Street, and is probably the only thing in Dublin which could by any stretch of the imagination be described as a staunchly Protestant pub. Pubs in Dublin be pubs. The only ones which have an identity beyond “pub” are gay bars. I think Greaney may have been trying to say staunchly Republican, which is a whole other different thing. But he may have been frightened of confusing American readers, who’d presumably expect a Republican pub to be full of libertarian rich people. Still, OK, it’s staunchly Catholic. You want that IRA vibe. I get it. Then maybe you might want to hold back from the idea of having your staunchly Catholic IRA schmuck brooding about local rugby teams. Ireland’s got a perfectly good rugby team, but staunchly Catholic IRA guys, as a matter of principle, don’t support Castle games like rugby, brought to Ireland by our colonial occupiers and played to this day largely by the people who miss them most and wish to be just like them.

Why am I giving him a hard time? Because this isn’t rocket surgery. The IRA aren’t an obscure band of goat herders with no published English language literature, and the difference between Dublin and Belfast is the stuff of a million magazine articles. If you can make the time to find out the calibre of a Makarov automatic, you can make the time to find out how people in Ireland talk and what they think about. Or set the book somewhere you actually know. Although in fact Greaney didn’t make the time on the Makarov, pistolet du choix of the Dublin underworld; it’s 9mm Makarov, not .380. Fill a Mak with .380 and it will jam on the first shot. If I know that, the world’s best gunman ought to.

Mercifully, before long we’re out of Dublin and into Sudan, where Greaney’s probably just as wrong, but at least he’s not jarring against my personal experience, if only because I had flu the week I was supposed to go to Sudan. And the action bangs around from Darfur to the Red Sea coast with everything going wrong, and a whole low budget Black Hawk Down experience as the climax. Gentry’s in a whole complicated mess over whether he’s going to kill the President of Sudan to oblige the Russians and make money, or kidnap and hand him over to the Hague to make his old CIA handlers rehabilitate him. He makes a complete bags of about three different plans, all while everyone explains how deadly and efficient he is. The through line Greaney seems to be aiming for is that Gentry just wants to be a nice guy and whenever he gives in to the impulse, everything goes wrong.

All of which puts Gentry on the run for Ballistic, where the cold open is somewhere in the Amazonian rain forest. I’ve got literally no idea if there’s work to be found cutting up underwater shipwrecks on the Amazon with an acetylene torch, and I doubt that Greaney even checked; he just wanted a well cool opening moment and made it up the way God intended. Running away from the way that goes wrong punts Gentry into Central America and then into a weird revenge fuelled jihad against the Mexican drug cartels. By the time that’s all over, Gentry’s killed dozens of people, lost even more weapons, and had a brief dose of romance which goes so well that Greaney has to resolve it by having the girl decide out of the blue to enter a convent, possibly the first time that’s happened in a novel since the death of Victor Hugo. But at least Gentry gets some new enemies out of the whole experience, so there’s that.

Dead Eye picks up a little later, as Gentry tries to solve one of his deal-with-the-devil problems by dealing with yet another devil to off the most pressing of the other devils. This all goes as wonderfully well as all his other cunning plans, inasmuch as a whole bunch of people get dead, but killing them makes such a noise that it attracts a whole bunch of other enemies to kill Gentry. The rest of the action unrolls around the Baltic, Belgium and Germany as Gentry gets embroiled in a plot to kill the Prime Minister of Israel. Unsurprisingly for the genre, the Israeli secret service are just about the only bunch of non-Gentry employees around the place who aren’t depicted as a bunch of amoral goons. This is an abiding quirk of US thrillers, who seem relaxed about making the various arms of US Homeland Security the villains of the piece, but always fight shy of saying anything nasty about Mossad, who I can only assume have the world’s meanest book club. A whole bunch more people get killed, but Gentry comes out of it with fractionally fewer enemies than any previous book and even a possible friend, which is a first for the poor misunderstood lamb.

Well, some more general points. I don’t know if Gentry is supposed to be anything more than a convenient somewhat-relatable hatstand on which Greaney can hang the kind of stunts and shootouts which will make a movie deal. It might not be any more complicated than that. Greaney likes his action sequences. But he keeps throwing shapes about making Gentry more than a stunt-holder, and I’m not sure what the real game might be. Gentry is kind of an arse. He’s got dismissive, contemptuous opinions about all kinds of people who I’d naturally side with, like the staff of the International Criminal Court. He’s terrible at one-liners, which is an unforgivable sin in a movie hero. But he’s an arse who’s increasingly aware of being an arse, and he’s more and more fed up with the mess his life has turned into. This isn’t some dark reimagining of the A-Team, where if you’re a scumbag with a load of money and an even more horrible enemy, there just might be someone you can call to take that money and that problem off your hands, all noble like. There’s an overarching plot to all of this stuff too, so that the books feel more like episodes in a long form TV show. And I continue to approve of the way that things go wrong and have consequences, even when it’s all a bit ridiculous if you test it against any normal standard of gritty realism.

So, is there a deeper game? Is Gentry a meditation on the price America pays for fighting the war on terror the way it’s decided to? He’s a sociopath, groomed to kill by shadowy money men, forever getting into trouble and wasting time and equipment and lives only to make everything worse and have more and more people hate him the more he tries to play enemies off against each other. I mean, I can read it that way, but did Greaney write it with that in his mind, behind all the well cool weapons and fashionable fetishism for “the operators” which has built up in the last decade. Somehow, I doubt it. I’m just over thinking it.

And in other - decidedly spoilers news, in the fourth book Greaney blows something which I’d hoped was going to be an eternal running gag. People kept asking Gentry if he was the guy who did the Kiev thing, and I loved the way he never said anything about it; Gentry never admitted one way or the other, and no-one else ever explained what they were talking about. Then in the fourth book, the whole cat comes out of the bag, and that’s such a shame.

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