With Hostile Intent, Robert Gandt

Signet, 2001, 368 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-20486-7

One of the great genre fiction tragedies of the past decade has been the progressive atrophy of the military thriller. From the genre’s heyday in the early nineties, we’ve been saddled with a number of unconvincing stories written by authors whose technical knowledge greatly exceeded their ability to tell a story effectively. Numerous best-selling authors have become mere parodies of themselves (I’m looking at you, Dale Brown) as others have moved on to other things or simply stopped writing.

In the absence of reliable authors, finding new material has taken a hit-and-miss quality. While there’s been a steady number of new writers coming out of the US military, their novels haven’t all been wonderful. A lot of these books are burdened with far too much military jargon and not much of a story. Most feature unpalatable characters. Many are contaminated with the kind of gung-ho militarism that makes them incomprehensible even to well-intentioned civilians. Of the late-nineties crop of military authors, only James H. Cobb has struck me as an interesting and reliable writer.

While it’s a bit early to judge Robert Gandt on reliability, his first novel With Hostile Intent suggests that he’s an author worth watching. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s certainly one of the most promising military fiction debuts in recent memory. Simply consider this: It’s a thriller in which the action scenes are not necessarily the most interesting part of the book.

It all takes place around the turn-of-the-millennium Persian Gulf, from Bahrain to Baghdad. In this pre-9/11 setting (Published in October 2001, With Hostile Intent may end up being the last thriller of the twentieth century), this is a familiar area: Saddam Hussein is the undisputed ruler of a sanctions-bound Iraq and the Americans are enforcing a no-fly zone over most of the country. The action begins as a mistake is made and an Iraqi fighter is shot down.

What follows is a pretty darn spiffy story of professional rivalry, tangled romances, aircraft carrier life and occasional military suspense. It’s not the first novel to take place on an aircraft carrier (see whole sections of Stephen Coonts’ oeuvre, for instance), but Gandt shows an uncanny knack at combining shipboard politics with more straightforward naval aviation action.

By far the best thing about With Hostile Intent is how it quickly develops sympathy for its characters. Protagonist Brick Maxwell may sport a pulp-fiction name, an outlandish biography and a steely behaviour, but he’s nearly the perfect viewpoint character: His undisputed skills don’t diminish his struggles as a new guy on the block. He’s got good friends and excellent enemies. Plus he gets to act like an idiot and atone for it. The gallery of supporting characters is also serviceable in creating an involvement with the book.

As an added bonus, With Hostile Intent isn’t the kind of jingoistic propaganda piece that gives military fiction a bad name. There are several rotten apples in this aircraft carrier, and our protagonist deals with them. The main Iraqi antagonist is described with some degree of respect and sympathy. Even the “sold-out” American journalist gets his fair moment of glory.

It’s stuff like that which gives With Hostile Intent an extra edge when comes the time to compare it to other contemporary military fiction. The writing style is limpid and uncluttered with the kind of techno-fetishism that ofter overwhelms similar books. It’s a welcome change of pace to find our interest as engaged in interpersonal strife than in the air combats. While parts of the book are unbelievable (isn’t anyone else paying attention to the number of crashes for this particular cruise?), they stand out because the rest of the book seems so realistic.

Time and other novels will tell if Gandt can sustain the promise shown by his first novel. But judging from With Hostile Intent, he certainly seems able to juggle the various demands of military fiction and deliver a pleasant reading experience on top of everything else. I may be suffering from low expectations, but this book delivered everything I could ask from such a thriller.

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