Harper Torch, 2003, 498 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-008663-7
There are five stages to reading a Patrick Robinson novel.
The first is surprise. Surprise that any editor, anywhere, would still be publishing Robinson after reading any of his previous novels. Robinson, after all, is the ultimate anti-writer: the clunkers he serves under the optimistic label of “novels” are nothing more than an exploration of mistakes to avoid for any budding writer of military fiction. Awful writing is only a beginning for him: what usually follows is a parade of undistinguished caricatures in lieu of characters, impulsive militarism standing in for actual thinking and geopolitics that would make blood-thirsty right-wing pundits blanch. Plotting, for him, is just a series of steps to get from Cool Idea A to Cool Idea B… except that both of those Cool Ideas would best be described as daydreams from a sub-literate moron actively enjoying psychopathic megalomania. The biggest surprise, of course, is that someone out there is still buying those books: I’ve never paid more than a full dollar for a Robinson novel because I keep finding them at used book sales. And yet, someone must be buying them new if they keep showing up for a second sale, right?
The second stage is bemusement. Bemusement that Robinson hasn’t learnt anything from his previous novels, and that no one has deemed it appropriate to tell him what’s wrong about his books. As Barracuda 945 gets underway, the first hundred pages are all about the book’s main villain, Ray Kerman, a top SAS operative forced to defect after killing one of his own men during a raid in Southern Israel. Despite a thoroughly Western education, Iranian-born Kerman proves surprisingly adept in becoming the next Top Terrorist, although Robinson’s favourite protagonist Arnold Morgan is quick to point out that you really can’t trust anyone who’s not of solid Anglo-Saxon material. And so it goes. Kerman (soon rechristened Ravi Rashood) is, of course, intensely reminiscent of USS Nimitz and HMS Unseen‘s Benjamin Adnam… but that’s hardly the only recurring feature from the rest of the series. Morgan’s back, of course, and so are fluffy bride-to-be Kathy and Jimmy Ramshawe, a randy young analyst who can figure out the obvious faster than anyone else. As for the other characters, the only one of interest is the lovely (yet predictably deadly) Shakira, an ex-housewife whose interest for American movies merely matches her tactical genius. I could detail how she finds her way in the novel and Kerman/Rahood’s arms, but then you would accuse me of lying.
Moving on: The third stage in reading a Robinson novel is dismay. Dismay that Robinson can still rely on the same tired tricks without being called on it. Dismay that he’s really not getting better at either the plotting or the writing of his novel. Here, the focus of the so-called plot is a fiendish plot to strike at America’s power sources from the stealth of a missile-armed submarine. Never mind that China and Iran once again team up to buy two top-notch nuclear submarines to give to a turncoat terrorist. Never mind how the US Navy could ping the heck out of the West Coast to find out where the submarine’s hidden. (Heck, never mind how the listening posts could pinpoint the launch coordinates of any sea-launched missile.) It doesn’t really matter: Barracuda 945 has maybe five important plot points and the rest is filler. Filler written with the glee of a thirteen year old who’s just telling his friends what a neat neat idea he’s just had for their next D&D campaign.
The fourth stage is amusement. Amusement at Robinson’s worst excesses and his uncanny tin ear for either dialogue or humour. Barracuda 945 features a few scenes that were probably intended as humour, but end up making the author look like an idiot with tons of unresolved issues. Right in the middle of a military thriller, Robinson takes a break on P.388-392 to describe an Academy Awards ceremony, with jokes that fall flat more quickly than you’d ever imagine. Robinson may think he’s funny, but there’s still a long way to go from his brain to the reader’s mind. Then there’s the screamingly funny bit at the end of Chapter 10 where the action grinds to a halt and Robinson’s favourite characters all rant and rail against Clinton’s decision to scrap the military restrictions on GPS. As they scream epithets against Clinton and find themselves very funny (as indicated by Morgan’s “ability to bring the house down” [P.364]) the scene only reveals Robinson in an unguarded moment of pure insanity. (It doesn’t help that one character points out the benefits of military-grade GPS for everyone, shutting up the characters for three lines before they start railing against Clinton again.) As Robinson shows, the problem isn’t with conservatives; it’s with dumb conservatives. In the meantime, you can just read the passage out loud to friends and wonder how that ever got past his editor.
But why worry? After all, the fifth stage of reading a Patrick Robinson novel is author-specific pyromania.