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Writer’s Club

WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – SON OF A GUN and FOUNDERS’ KEEPER, by Ed Markham

 

SON OF A GUN and FOUNDERS’ KEEPER, by Ed Markham

SON OF A GUN  FOUNDERS' KEEPER COVER

Based on its essential role in everything I write, buy, or watch, I expect the Internet knows me pretty well by now. Every once in a while I get a sign that that might actually be a good thing – most recently through Amazon, where a team of people behind a mysterious curtain tracks my browsing habits and online reviews to come up with books that I have a good chance of liking.

The latest recommendations are for the work of Ed Markham, author of SON OF A GUN and FOUNDERS’ KEEPER. Because the lineup I see most mornings when I log on is full of brand name authors, I hadn’t heard of him. But at some point, thanks to Amazon, I ordered his thriller, SON OF A GUN. I started it on a Sunday night with that “I’ll just read a few pages before I go to sleep.” mindset. An hour later I was a third of the way through, and completely spellbound.

SON OF A GUN is about a possibility most parents forcibly push out of their minds – the abductions of their kids. In this case they’re 13 and 14-year-old boys living in upper middle class neighborhoods with good schools and nicely tended yards – places where families are lulled into believing they’re completely safe. What the good moms and dads don’t know is that there’s a serial killer who’s obsessed with his need to hide his true nature – a need that’s manifested in his placement of white masks over the faces of the boys he murders. The masks bear no expression, conveying nothing but a blankness that shouldn’t scare you. Except that it does, especially when you realize the masks are a mental projection of the face the killer wears to blend into the regular world, right up to the point where he shoots the boys through their hearts.

This genuinely frightening narrative is underscored by the relationship between a father-son team of FBI investigators. The primary, David Yerxa, is assisted and guided by his semi-retired dad, Martin. David’s eager progress to unravel the psychologically twisted mystery that leads to the abductions and murders is supported and occasionally turbocharged by Martin’s wisdom and experience with a related case. Both characters are natural leaders – exactly the type of guys the parents of these children would wish for in investigators to the disappearances of their kids.

The ticking clock fight to catch the bad guy before he kills again becomes especially compelling in chapters from the perspective of Carson Affeldt, the latest boy to be abducted. Markham does a masterful job of getting into the head of a kid who skips school to smoke cigarettes and look “cool” to older kids, yet bursts into tears in the horrifying moments when he realizes, in the killer’s locked basement, that he’s probably going to die. Fortunately, Carson has wits and gumption, and realizes he might stand a chance when he notices something that’s not quite right about the layout of that basement room. Underlying that narrative is Markham’s keen understanding of the social politics of high school and the vulnerabilities that lead 14-year-old boys to pick and choose friends who will strengthen or propel their position on the ladder of popularity.

From the first pages to the last, I kept wondering what would happen next, and was genuinely surprised by the identity of the bad guy and thrilled with the way David and Martin Yerxa brought him into the light.

It was only then, when I got ready to post my Amazon review, that I realized Markham had another book, FOUNDERS’ KEEPER. This is an astoundingly original story that actually turns the Constitution into an instrument of terror for a serial killer. It’s also pretty scary – first because every one of the murders is vividly wrought with imagery that stayed in my mind; second because the possibility – in a world where people could actually elect a whacko to become the next president – of the possibility that the killer’s justification for the murders could happen in real-life.

In this book – which was written prior to SON OF A GUN – Martin Yerxa’s deep knowledge of American history and the Founding Fathers era becomes an essential compass in the efforts by Martin, David and another FBI agent to navigate their way toward an understanding the killer’s mindset. The trail is lined with clues based on where the murders take place, the ways in which the victims are killed, and the language of the Constitution. Along the way we meet one of the creepiest murderers I’ve seen in recent thrillers, a perfectly realized character who embodies what happens when victims of terrible childhoods grow up to wreak terror in their adult lives.

Once again I was mesmerized by the story and the characters, and sent into that wonderful place where reading becomes more important than just about anything else. I was also genuinely stunned by the ending, which was more surprising than anything I’ve read in recent months. I was also confounded by yet another mystery: why hasn’t a major publisher seized the opportunity to send both of these books right up to the tops of the bestseller lists? Based on more than 250 customer reviews, Amazon knows they’re absolute winners – and if Amazon knows this, publishers should likewise know that Ed Markham is a master storyteller who has everything it takes to become one of those brand-names who commands that first row of “recommendations” every time you log on.

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WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – CAPITAL OFFENSE, by Kathleen Antrim

 

CAPITAL OFFENSE, by Kathleen Antrim

Capital Offense

Hey, you! Yes, you – in the dark blue suit, second row; the one who can’t stop looking down at your screen in hopes of finding a trailer for the next season of House of Cards. The one who binge-watched all of the previous seasons – twice – spellbound by the suspense and wondering all the while if you’d ever see one single honorable moment in the lives of Frank or Claire Underwood.

I’ve got bad and good news for you. The bad is that you probably won’t see any teaser trailers for the next season until at least January of 2017. The good is that Kathleen Antrim’s CAPITAL OFFENSE gives you another opportunity to be pulled into a story that chronicles the same kind of scheming, betrayals and outright charisma it probably takes to get the keys to the residential floors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

That said, there are a few key differences. First, you’ll meet a lead character who becomes First Lady with every bit of the intelligence we’ve seen in Claire Underwood but with a moral center and likability that Claire certainly doesn’t have. Second, you’ll see many more murders. That’s what happens to the individuals (and in some cases their families) who threaten a carefully laid-out plan to get Missouri Senator Warner Hamilton Lane into the White House. The bad guys behind the plan are wealthy and extremely powerful political power brokers. Their assassin is a single woman who knows how to tinker with airplane engines and fashion bullets to be fired out of high caliber rifles that disappear on impact with the victim. The bodies pile up between chapters that artfully describe the deals and deceits that enable the plan for getting Lane into the White house to fall into place.

The story is a lot of fun for people who work in Washington – and probably for anyone involved in politics at any level, particularly if their experiences have led them to become more cynical about the “calling” to serve, or whatever. The audacity of the misdeeds will also be fodder to the millions of people who rage online about “conspiracies” that will put the next president into office (none of which have been proven and most of which are fed by the mentality that saying it makes it so). In fact, when the first edition of this book was published in 2005 tens of thousands of readers found it immensely entertaining but probably doubted any of it could actually happen.

No one will feel that way now, given what actually has happened. In fact, CAPITAL OFFENSE is an irresistible story for everyone who’s interested in both the substantive elements of political discourse in our country right now, and in the family dramas of the two most interesting candidates. And if you’re really into conspiracy theories you’ll love it even more.

What you’re likely to remember and appreciate in the long run though are the two protagonists, First Lady Carolyn Alden Lane and veteran journalist Jack Rudley. As a prosecutor driven by her need to protect innocent children and win the everlasting battle against illegal drugs, Carolyn enters the story in the place where she has the most power – the courtroom. She’s immediately appealing, and you know by a few pages on that she deserves so much better than the trap her husband and father in-law pull her into. Rudley is an investigative reporter accustomed to breaking big stories. He also has a very personal stake in Carolyn’s quest to expose the bad guys and right the scales of justice.

Through a strategic alliance they mount a thrilling effort to strike back at people who believe they simply can’t be taken down. Given the powerful forces they’re up against, you might doubt Carolyn and Jack can pull it off. What they actually achieve is even better and more surprising – the perfect wham-bam ending that shows how a combination of true investigative journalism and righteous political gamesmanship can ultimately bring honor back to the highest office in the nation.

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WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – THE FIXER, and other stories by Joseph Finder

 

THE FIXER, by Joseph Finder

THE FIXER

Joseph Finder’s bestselling novels frequently incorporate mysteries that must be unraveled by lead characters we can instantly empathize with. They’re typically smarter-than-average guys who are emotionally wired to play by the rules, but who are tempted to roll the dice and score something far more exciting than what their simple lives might otherwise deliver. Virtually always, they’re good guys caught in desperately bad situations that force them to commandeer their moral compasses to save their souls while simultaneously striving to save their skin.

These were the thoughts that ran through the subterranean part of my mind as I fell headlong into last summer’s Finder novel, THE FIXER. I went into it knowing I was apt to experience a fast-paced story about a single protagonist mortally endangered by conspiracies and secrets. I knew the high-stakes of those conspiracies would make the villains especially violent. I also knew, based on all of the Joseph Finder novels I’ve read, that the protagonist would be a likable but far-from-perfect everyman, and that his success in staying alive would ultimately save other lives, take down powerful people, and lead to personal redemption.

THE FIXER delivers all of this in a fast, thrilling read. Without giving away much of the plot I’ll tell you of the elements that play into the intrigue. There’s an enormous pile of cash that out-of-work journalist Rick Hoffman discovers behind a closet wall. There are violent bad guys who might once have been vigilantes with the Irish Republican Army who have Rick in their crosshairs. And there’s a compellingly plausible description of political corruption in Boston that’s becomes an irresistible subject for an expose that ultimately enables Rick to better understand certain mysteries in his past while laying a path toward a far brighter future.

I loved this book every bit as much as Paranoia, Company Man, Buried Secrets and High Crimes, which forced criminal defense attorney Claire Chapman to square off with military lawyers intent on putting her husband to death for a horrific crime (a book that was also made into a great movie at the end of the 1990s with Ashley Judd and James Caviezel). As someone who’s spent three decades behind a desk and weathered quite a few economic recessions, I appreciated Company Man and Paranoia (which also became a film starring Harrison Ford) for Finder’s ability to thrust characters who are living unremarkable lives into deadly, high-stakes conspiracies. They’re stories that capture the insecurities of white collar workers who occasionally feel as if they can’t trust the authority figures who have so much power over their lives. People who know what it’s like to clench their fists under a conference room table and wonder why certain people are inside their boss’ office with the door closed. While your own job may not turn office politics into life-or-death situations, you can probably recognize elements of your own experiences in these stories. Buried Secrets is a bit different because main character Nick Heller actually is a “private spy” who basically goes looking for trouble, yet once again Finder makes that trouble personal, and terrifying.

Taken together, all of Finder’s stories stand out in a crowded thriller field because they mix escapism with realism. They’re a perfect read after a long day at the office when you want to slip into a “what’s going to happen next?” kind of story with characters who take extraordinarily dangerous measures to stay alive and solve crimes while staying true to moral values that may or may not be in their best interests. Stories that will probably intensify your white collar insecurities en route to satisfying conclusions where the good guys win the day.

 

WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC and THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT, by A.J. Tata

FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC and THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT, by A.J. Tata

FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC UPDATED COVER   THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT COVER

Thriller fans have all kinds of reasons to love hit shows like 24 and Homeland. There are the high stakes of the interpersonal and geopolitical conflicts that get all mixed up in the minds of Jack Bauer and Carrie Mathison. There’s the pacing and cliffhanger plotting (which is faster and scarier in 24 but more nuanced and perhaps more rewarding in Homeland). And there’s the realism. You don’t really believe Chloe can instantaneously send schematics where bad guys glow green to Jack’s PDA every time he enters a warehouse with his gun drawn. Yet the terrible things that happen in both shows aren’t any less terrible than the things that are happening in real life right now.

What makes both shows most compelling to me are the changing faces of the enemies. They hide behind the uniforms and credentials of military and government authority. They are concealed by the charisma of sociopathic schemers who prove to be deranged only after you’ve come to think of them as good guys. And more often than not, they’re U.S. citizens whose minds have become corrupted by an insane need for power or wealth or faulty psychological wiring.

That’s a good way to explain how I felt when Sgt. Nicholas Brody of Homeland emerged as a POW from the Iraq war and set in motion a precise plan to kill the Vice President. I was far more unsettled, however, by the homegrown bad guys in A.J. Tata’s bestselling FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC.

One is a reptilian murderer born and raised in the U.S. He could easily be compared to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, except for a level of intelligence and bloodlust that makes him more lethal. Another is a lieutenant general and Pentagon power-player determined to make story’s protagonist, Jake Maheegan, a pawn in a scheme to make money and settle certain family conflicts. And then there are the private military contractors who are sleeping in a bed of snakes thanks to financial dealings with terrorists.

All of the villains are perfectly wrought, with motivations that range from emotional to financial to simply wanting to kill as many innocent people as possible. They’re scary because they’re so believable. Yet you also believe from the beginning that none are going to be a match for Maheegan, a Delta Force captain disgraced by a bad but completely understandable decision in the heat of an operation to capture a terrorist.

I won’t give away any more of the plot but will spotlight a few elements that drive the page-turning suspense. There are thuggish U.S. Army warrant officers acting on the general’s behest to permanently destroy Maheegan’s professional reputation. There are Afghan prisoners who become foot soldiers in acts of terror on U.S. soil. And there are many situations that have Maheegan fearlessly squaring off, Jack Reacher style, with an I don’t give a #$@&^ about your authority attitude toward the corrupt general, which makes Maheegan even more likable to hard-working guys and gals who have been forced to face up to the fact that life really isn’t always fair and just.

Amid all of this there are two elements to this story that will stay on my mind forever. The first is the characterization of Jake Maheegan. He’s of native-American ancestry. He’s beginning his own mission to reconcile terrors and ghosts of his own past when he returns to the coastal North Carolina town where most of the action takes place. He’s emotionally wired to live a good life protecting good people despite the horrible things that have been done to him in the past. He’s also a physical marvel who can swim miles a day in the ocean to recover from a war injury and, in one especially gripping scene, jump out of a plane flying several thousand in the air and land precisely on a boat loaded with terrorists.

The other element that stays with me is the way A.J. Tata made me think. He’s a retired brigadier general, combat infantryman and paratrooper who has deployed on combat missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and other dangerous places, so it’s easy to see how life experiences prepared him to write thrilling action scenes. He also has advanced degrees and credentials from the Army School of Advanced Military Studies, Catholic University and Harvard University’s JFK School of Government, and served as the Chancellor for Washington, DC schools working alongside Michelle Rhee.

This second realm of life experience in public policy became especially interesting in the telling of this story. General Tata isn’t afraid to expose how military contractors could jeopardize the lives of innocent Americans to make a quick buck. He’s willing to challenge – perhaps for the sake of a good story but in a completely believable way – the conventional wisdom that ascendance to the highest ranks of the military is always driven by character and patriotism. And he’s deftly successful at deconstructing the notion that war can simply be viewed as good guys from the US verses bad guys from somewhere else.

True to its name, this book is about enemies foreign and domestic. While they’re equally scary, those who look like the college kid or high ranking military official who might live next door might encourage many readers to learn more about opportunists in our war on terror.

I had planned to end my current review of General Tata’s work after reading this book in a day and a half. Fortunately the version on my Kindle ended with a teaser to the sequel, THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT. I kept going, and was immediately sucked in to a story that’s even more personal for Jake Maheegan.

The plot of THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT incorporates everything readers will love about its prequel, albeit with higher stakes (eg: a nuclear threat that could murder millions) accelerating into a race-against-the-clock climax featuring a heroic and heartbreaking death. Yet it’s General Tata’s decision to drill down farther into Jake Maheegan’s psyche that yields the greatest reward. Through a narrative blending another smart soldier who makes a series of bad decisions, corrupt law enforcement officials and, not incidentally, a subplot of sexual blackmail, THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT turns out enough surprises to keep you reading into the night, and forcing you to reconsider any assumption that the greatest threat to American’s safety comes from across the border or on the other side of the world.

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