Harper Choice, 1997, 486 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-101249-1
I recall being rather impressed by Kyle Mills’ second novel, Storming Heaven, a fun thriller animated by a vast conspiracy, a chilling sect inspired by Scientology and good-old-fashioned police work. It wasn’t particularly original, but it was very well executed and featured an interesting protagonist in the character of maverick FBI agent Mark Beamon.
For the same reason, I was hesitant to pick up Rising Phoenix, Mills’ first novel also featuring Mark Beamon. Had the second volume featured enough spoilers to ruin the first novel? Would this first effort measure up to the standards of the second book?
As is turns out, Rising Phoenix is a different book. First, it’s not spoiled by Storming Heaven. The two stories are very distinct, and it’s almost an accident if they both happen to have the same protagonist. Certainly, no major events or secondary characters cross over in more than a passing mention.
Furthermore, whereas Storming Heaven had a run-of-the-mill concept helped by a great execution, Rising Phoenix is closer to an original premise given life in a very ordinary fashion.
It starts as a nationally-renowned preacher gives carte blanche to an assistant (as it turns out, a sadistic ex-policeman with a record of excessive brutality) to solve, once and for all, the drug problem in America. The operative then goes and executes a plan near and dear to his heart; poison a substantial fraction of the Columbian drug supply with a deadly spore. One whiff of the poisoned material and the poison starts to act. Two weeks later—goodbye, drug user.
Terrorism by any other name, this action quickly strikes fear among the drug-using population of the United States. Given the latency period, it’s nearly impossible to quickly detect the contaminated shipments. Thousands quit their nefarious habit, drug prices shoot through the roof, Columbian drug lords go nuts and several citizen applaud the gesture. This uncommon ambiguity is further heightened when the preacher has remorse, drug lords dispatch their operatives to catch the poisoner and the government has to do something to stop the health catastrophe.
It’s up to special agent Mark Beamon to investigate the case and catch the culprit, a culprit who turns out to be an old acquaintance of his. And this is where Rising Phoenix takes a departure from a fantastic premise over to a hum-drum thriller. It’s almost as if Mills didn’t know what to do with his initial concept and had to stick in a hero to bring back law and order. It’s not as interesting as seeing an unconventional plan do some ambiguous good, mind you. A bit like Vince Flynn’s Term Limit, it’s as if the authors had to de-fang their initial idea with something closer to what the general public is able to stomach.
Oh well. At least the novel is competently written. While the concept of “poisoning America’s drug supply” may sound dubious at first, Mills makes it uncommonly believable. He also paints his characters with some skill, though the image of the antagonist is muddled though inconsistent heroics. The other letdown is the way in which an interesting political debate is toned down in favour of more straight-up police thriller mechanics. Then again, this is Mills’ first novel: some flaws are to be expected, such as the unfortunately confusing action scenes and the imperfect characterization.
But what Rising Phoenix clearly does establish is Kyle Mills’ potential as a thriller writer to watch. While both of the novels I’ve read from him so far have had flaws, they still remain good examples of capable genre novels. Worth a look.