St. Martin’s, 2006 paperback reprint of 2005 original, 344 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-93418-1
Kyle Mills may not be a best-selling thriller author, but he’s certainly an interesting one. His bibliography shows a preference for tackling unusual subjects with an off-beat sensibility: His best work to date may be Smoke Screen, a low-intensity comic thriller taking place within the smoking industry. In other novels, he has featured characters poisoning the US drug supply, taking on Scientology-like cults, discovering Edgar J. Hoover’s secret files or publicly helping terrorists. While not everything he writes is of equal interest, even his most forgettable novels have one or two elements worth mentioning.
Fade won’t rank as one of his best, but it certainly shows the way Mills can take familiar thriller elements and rearrange them in an unusual fashion. The main character of the novel is, at first glance, the kind of guy you find at the middle of just about every modern American thriller: A super-competent Special Forces operative, a one-man army capable of winning the War on Terror by himself. Except that Salam al Fayed (“Fade”) has been wounded in action years ago and sent to retirement by a government too cheap to pay for surgery that would avert his eventual paralysis. When former best friend Matt Egan comes knocking to ask him to perform one last mission, he’s unaware that Fade has nurtured his resentment to a dangerous level.
Most thrillers would then go on to that last mission, to the promise of healing, to friendship between brothers-in-arms. But this is where Fade goes off the rails: Our protagonist vehemently refuses to accept that last mission. When the government tries to take him in through a local SWAT force, Fade kills most of them, leaving their team leader (an attractive policewoman) alive. Contacted again by Egan, he vows deadly revenge against his ex-friend and whoever authorized the botched SWAT raid.
But there’s a further flip in store, because while most thrillers would take painstaking efforts to paint Fade as an outright villain, Mills turns him into a strangely likable anti-hero; witty, desperate for a date with the policewoman he spared, not above acute gadget fever and definitely not deadly when he can be vengefully funny. Fade, can often be read as a comic novel, especially when a plan for poisoning his enemies turns into a somewhat more lax experience, or when Fade hires colourful mechanics to transform his car into something more spectacular. There are strong echoes of Smoke Signal’s smirking tone in the way much of the novel unfolds, with amusing dialogue between characters that should hate each other but seem to get along quite well, and unusual sequences that sometimes threaten to veer into absurdity.
As far as simple reading pleasure is concerned, Fade fares well despite the often-tangled web of loyalties the reader is asked to consider. The novel has a few standout sequences and nice character moments, such as the tense negotiations between Fade and Egan as to whether the latter’s family should be kept out of the revenge equation. Contrarily to much of Mills’ bibliography, Fade’s intimate focus has little interest for world-shaking theatrics when there’s a character with real problems to solve within the American heartland.
But the tension between the novel’s sometimes-serious plotting and sometimes-silly sequences eventually lands Fade in a narrative dead-end from which there’s only one unpleasant exit. Its conflicted hero is equally deadly as he is charming, and that helps make the novel’s final moments feel bittersweet. On the other hand, they’re a further mark of distinction for an author who doesn’t seem to want to play by the same rules of so many other interchangeable modern thrillers pitting reliably white American operatives against just-as-reliably Arab antagonists.
Fade is less predictable than most other novels in its category, and that makes it quite a bit intriguing. On the other hand, it remains to be seen if that kind of unorthodox approach is what has kept Mills from hitting greater sales numbers. The danger is always that his Bookscan numbers would dip under what publishers consider to be viable threshold. Without access to the sales numbers, it’s still easy to note (with some worry) that Mills doesn’t have an upcoming novel listing despite a last publication of two years ago. Hopefully this is just a blip…
[Trivial bibliographic note, but: The first edition of the mass-market paperback has an error on the copyright page stating that the “St. Martin’s Paperbacks edition” was published in “May 2005”… that is, one month before the release of the first hardcover edition. Amazon.com has the proper May 2006 release date.]