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