Morrow, 2004, 345 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-009411-7
Long-time readers of these reviews may ask why I keep reading Dale Brown’s novels if I obviously hate them so much. Part of the answer lies in my admiration of Brown’s early novels: If he was able to do it once, why not again? But the real answer is elsewhere: For years, I just kept purchasing Brown’s books whenever I found them at used book sales, piling them up unread and always thinking that I’d end up reading them all sooner or later. My mistake was in assuming that they would get better. Now I have to tough it out until the very end.
And Plan of Attack, if I’m to judge from Brown’s web site, is a temporary end of sorts: The last Patrick McLanahan novel before Brown’s newer series. You would think that this would be good news: after all, haven’t I spent the last mumble-mumble reviews of Brown’s books complaining about how the McLanahan universe is now completely irrelevant to the new geopolitical reality? Wouldn’t it be great to see Brown properly dispose of McLanahan and his cohorts? The only problem is that I’m not convinced Brown is done with McLanahan yet. Then there’s the fact that even just one last lap may be too much to bear again.
Picking up where Brown’s last half-dozen snooze-fests have left off, Plan of Attack begins with Yet Another Stupid Move by McLanahan, one that results in another international incident in McLanahan’s long career. This time around, though, this very career takes a hit as McLanahan is busted down a grade and shuffled to another area of the Air Force. Still, you can hardly count him out, especially when he discovers evidence of an audacious plan by Russia’s president to bomb America’s strategic nuclear arsenal…
Said Russian president is insane, of course, and so is the novel. While Plan of Attack is generally more interesting than Brown’s previous three novels put together, it’s the kind of interest caused by train-wrecks or forensic reports: it’s horrible, but fun to piece together why such a bad thing happened.
The main problem, of course, is that Brown’s fictional universe has long lost any relevance to the current geopolitics. McLanahan has now battled enemies in eleven novels stretching all the way back to the last days of the Cold War: Any attempt to reconcile it with real-world event is doomed to failure. (And so is any attempt to point out that the plot is pure paranoid nonsense.) Yet Brown piles on the incoherences by weaving 9/11 in the narrative, though without it having any impact on the characters or the environment in which they work: Brown’s “American Holocaust of 2004” [P.340] ends up casually dwarfing 9/11 and that’s that. A better, more confident writer may have used this premise as the basis for an alternate history novel set in a different Reagan era, but one gets the sense that Brown isn’t interested in pushing the envelope, just in delivering a pat novel that does exactly the same thing as any of his previous novels.
Unfortunately, those would be the exact same things that made his previous novels such painfully uninteresting piece of work. The overdose of jargon and minutia; the wretched dialogue (“’This is unbelievable!’ President Anatoliy Gryzlov shouted. ‘I cannot believe the sheer audacity of these Americans!’” [P.330]); the reliance on fantasy technology like the “Tin Man” suits; the indifferent characterization; the flat prose; the lack of interest in following the story where it truly leads (you will never read a less involving nuclear war novel); the way the high tech equipment makes it easy for the protagonists to kick ass without any personal danger or involvement. Whatever was promising in previous instalments is constantly neutralized and defanged: if you were expecting a political showdown between President Thorn and Martindale, you can forget it as one of them (you’ll guess who) simply steps aside off-stage to let the Republican take charge. Lazy plotting doesn’t stop there: When two powerful commanders league up to stop McLanahan, they are neatly taken out of the plot by a convenient plane crash.
I like to be lenient on military thrillers and enjoy them for that they try to be, but there’s a limit to being complacent: After a steady string of failures, enough is enough: it’s safe to assume that Brown’s not aiming particularly high any more.
If there’s any consolation to the fact that I’ve got yet another Brown book in my stack of stuff to read, it’s that Act of War promises a brand-new hero and a focus on the war on terrorism. As long as Brown keeps recycling McLanahan, he’s at a dead end. It’s high time for him to do the honourable thing and let McLanahan retire. Or else Brown himself can start thinking about doing something else and leaving the novel-writing business to professionals.
[March 2009: After two off-McLanahan novels that were substandard even by the low standards of his late career, Brown returns to his favourite series in 2007’s Strike Force, but brings back links to nearly all of his unconnected novels so far, ignoring huge chunks of his backstory for the sake of bringing all of his novels in one continuity. The increasingly self-satisfied solipsistic nature of his writing gets worse, and the result is a novel so awful that I’m thinking that enough is enough: for the near future, I’m done with Brown. Anyone in the market for a full run of his hardcovers?]