Pocket, 2000, 402 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-04732-9
Vince Flynn’s first thriller, Term Limits, was a provocative thriller in which super-patriot terrorists began killing corrupt politicians. While the novel later settled for a very disappointing conclusion closer to what we’d call “the usual thriller”, it was an original debut from a writer with potential. Flynn once again delivered the goods with Transfer of Power, a by-the-number hostage thriller in which the White House was taken over by Middle Eastern terrorists. Despite familiar plot mechanics, it was a decent enough novel with enough dynamic energy to make it interesting.
Sadly enough, Flynn’s third outing displays none of the interest and most of the flaws of his previous efforts. It’s dull, pointless and reminiscent of the type of so-called “thrillers” churned out by Robert Ludlum in his most featureless period.
There isn’t even a decent hook to draw us in. Once again, an American secret operative is double-crossed and left for dead. Naturally enough, he’s barely wounded and vows revenge on whoever betrayed him. There are friends in high places, enemies in equivalent positions and high-level political intrigue. Our hero is forced to flee, infiltrate, attack and punish. All of which has been done before in much more interesting stories.
Worse; in The Third Option (which refers to “special” intelligence work, once diplomacy and military force are no longer practical), Flynn explicitly brings back characters from his previous two novels. Super-agent Mitch Rapp is back as the protagonist (along with his girlfriend, with predictable plot developments) and Congressman Michael O’Rourke follows up from the events of Term Limits.
The biggest problem with continuing series is that it robs the reader of a sense of unpredictability. While this is acceptable -even comforting- in some genres such as the mystery genre (see Robert B. Parker’s Spencer series), it’s not an option in the thriller genre. Here, part of the pleasure of reading is in not knowing what can happen at a very high level. The president can be assassinated; a city can be incinerated; conspiracies can be uncovered; protagonists can die. Here, the stakes become correspondingly smaller. The magnitude of the thrill is reduced by built-in constraints. Any writer tempted to write, as Flynn is doing, “a series of political thrillers” would be advised to reconsider. (This goes double for editors trying to sell this stuff.)
The Third Option‘s conclusion is a splendid example of how series can hamper the thrills; all of our protagonists survive and some of the villains are caught while the bigger villains escape to strike another day, much like in any bad cartoon made for children. Thrills? Slight. Memorable impressions? Even slighter. Worse; the novel is padded, drawing out the unsatisfying conclusion. Some of the political manoeuvring is implausible even for a guy stuck in Ottawa, a fatal blow to a so-called serious “political thriller”.
To be entirely fair, it’s impossible to know at this point what Flynn has in mind for his series. Is it all leading up to a concluding tome which will kill the whole cast and send Washington in orbit? Maybe. In the meantime, though, does it mean his readers are going to be teased at every “thrilling” instalment waiting for something to happen? Why should their pay money and waste their time for this dubious privilege?
As it stands now, The Third Option is a setback for anyone paying attention to Flynn’s career. He’s not a terribly gifted writer on a technical level, so the success of his books tends to depend a lot on the plotting. Consequently, he can’t manage to hold any interest in a very average third novel. Worse; chances are that he’s managed to make anyone very indifferent to the prospect of a fourth one.