Morrow, 1997, 290 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 0-688-15246-5
Though it may be hard to imagine at this particular moment in time, there was a time, barely six years ago, where it was fashionable to think dark thoughts about the CIA. Rather than have this reputation as hard-working defenders of our Western freedoms, the CIA could be used in thrillers as a deeply corrupt agency with no compulsions whatsoever. If exploiting human weaknesses was what it took in order to secure access to information vital to the protection of American interests, well, so be it.
For the longest time, protagonist Peter Gaines had been one of those operators, doing what was necessary in order to weasel information out of semi-cooperative agents. But everyone has his limits, and Gaines’ is reached when he’s put in charge of “Fantasy Store”, a high-class bordello in Bangkok. Here, every vice is catered to as long as cameras are rolling in order to provide good blackmail material. The more despicable the act, the better the blackmail. Gaines reacts poorly and is promptly fired for his excess of conscience.
There is, naturally, a woman at the root of the problem: Songka, the newest recruit of “Fantasy Store”, the most beautiful woman Gaines has ever seen. He goes nuts for her, and his quest to find her again will take him back to Thailand even though the CIA is watching his every move. In this new civilian life, Peter has to learn that nothing is what it seems and every revelation might not be entirely truthful.
Operation Fantasy Plan could have been written during the seventies by a British author and it would still be the same novel. The prose exudes an air of deep cynicism and of resigned weariness. The dour narration is interesting at first, taking us deep in a world of secrets upon secrets. The first few chapters are a crash-course in psychological manipulation, as Gaines recounts his training and the major incidents of his career. The first-person narration makes it impossible to hide or to distance ourselves from the narrative. Gaines isn’t much of an optimist, and the style of the novel reflects that.
As the tale emerges, though, a few problems appear. For a die-hard cynic, Gaines moves deeper and deeper in sentimental territory that’s hard to justify, even for someone as smitten as he is. It’s understandable that this is written as a romantic story as much as a straight-up thriller, but the endless pining of the narrator for “his” Songka gets to be a bit much after a while.
Then there’s the small-world cliché, in which every single person mentioned in the first five chapters end up being vitally important to the story resolution, with particular boos to “Vaal” as being the worst example of this.
Plus there’s the novel’s declining interest once the “big secret” is out of the bag, maybe three-quarter of the way in the novel. The rest isn’t nearly as compelling, as we’re down to a who-trusts-who game that gets so twisty it’s tiresome. Compared to the rather fun first third, the third act is too long, too depressing and far too sentimental. What began as summer reading ends up in a heavy philosophical morass closer to John LeCarre than to Richard Marcinko. Some will be impressed; some will be disappointed.
Not that anyone will have time to complain, I suspect. At a brisk and airy 290 pages, Operation Fantasy Plan is short enough that even the most demanding readers won’t lose too much time over this. The result is an adequate, but ultimately forgettable novel that simply doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from the pack.