James W. Huston

Secret Justice, James W. Huston

Avon, 2003, 450 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-000838-5

[Note from your usual reviewer: As I was reading in one of the departure lounges in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, waiting for my flight back to Ottawa, a man sitting next to me finished his paperback novel, nudged me and said “You should read this one”. I couldn’t let that opportunity slip by and asked why: what follows is a transcription of what he told me.]

The problem with novels there days is that’s they’re just too soft. We’re at war, all right? The camel-heads just want to blast us away and all these fluffy pinko authors can do is wring their hands about how it’s not right to destroy them. I’m with the President on this: if we don’t teach them a lesson, they’ll never learn. It’s just business. Capitalism, baby. In my line of work, we buy companies before they buy us. Kill’em first, that’s what I always say.

I spend nearly half my time flying around the country, and with the stupid rules about “electronic interference”, I end up reading a lot of books. You wouldn’t catch me dead with romance, but these days it looks like females are writing half the thrillers out there. Me, I want the good stuff. Stuff written by military guys. Those who have been there and can tell it like it is. Huston’s the real deal. He’s been in the Navy. He also became a lawyer and I can’t stand those bastards, but nobody’s perfect.

I’m not sure what Huston’s written before, but Secret Justice‘s just the kind of books we should force people to read. Starts somewhere out there in the desert, with US troops getting a bunch of terrorists. Not all of them, though: the big guy, the Osama of the gang has been able to slip out and the others won’t tell what’s happened to him. Well, guess what, the hero of the book doesn’t wast his time meowing like those pussies I saw at our new factory yesterday: He grabs one of the terrorists and start dunking his head underwater until he starts blabbing. Five minutes later, wannabee-Osama’s in the bag.

Of course, the first weak-ass terrorist dies because of some crap torture-related thing, but it doesn’t matter: The hero comes back with wannabee-Osama and everyone’s happy. For a while, everyone’s able to focus on the real problem: The terrorists are about to attack America, and wannabee-Osama knows something. It’s up to the hero to run around the world to stop the problem.

But when Fox News tells you that the real problem with our country is the liberals, they’re not kidding: The doctors who discovered the dead terorrist starts emailing the euro commies over at Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders to complain about the torture. Pretty soon, the liberals are winning: the hero is accused of murder and he’s stopped from going after the real terrorists. The dumb doctor even pays for a lawyer to defend wannabee-Osama, who suddenly starts saying that he’s not the real kinda-Osama.

But that’s all right, because the hero gets to go away on missions between breaks in his murder case. He briefs the presidents, romances his girl, fights the terrorists and tells the liberals to go screw themselves: that’s a hero. Now, it gets a bit confusing after that, because wannabee-Osama isn’t the real kinda-Osama and that makes the doctor feel better about his dumb no-torture attitude, but it doesn’t matter: Pretty soon, the hero gets to torture the real kinda-Osama, and gets to stop a big terrorist plot.

And you know what? That’s the real-world for you. Sometimes, even the good guys have to take a pair of pliers and cut off people’s finger if that’s what’s needed to save the world. The lawyers, the bleeding hearts, the code of justice are just garbage we use to make ourselves feel better. That book knows that, and man I was happy to read a novel written by a real man for once: none of that “oh, we must be sensitive to the enemies, meow, meow, meow” bull. You know, sometime you’ve got to suck it up: Yesterday, I saw grown guys cry after being told their factory was going to be closed and shipped off to India. Hell, if you can’t take it like a man, you don’t deserve to live in America. We’re a country that gets result; screw everything else.

I’m definitely picking up Huston’s next book. Anyone with the guts to say that he’s pro-torture will get money from guys like me.

The Price of Power, James W. Huston

Avon, 1999, 503 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-73160-6

I suppose that it was just a matter of time until someone thought about producing a hybrid thriller including elements of both military fiction and courtroom drama. You may pick James W. Huston’s The Price of Power expecting a political thriller (it’s certainly marketed as such), but it proves to be something a bit more diverse than that.

The story picks up in media res, as terrorists take a family hostage and an admiral is put in handcuffs. I hadn’t read Huston’s previous Balance of Power, so the initial setup seems awfully busy. “Hey, there’s another book’s worth of stuff in there” I thought, before figuring out that there was indeed another book out there. Ironically, some of the previous novel’s material seems a bit forced when you don’t have the context, such as the physical wounds suffered by the protagonist.

The plot that gradually emerges is a power contest between Congress and the President, one that will be fought through two separate court battles. The President is impeached, a court martial takes place, marines are asked to stand by and terrorists attack.

It wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable if it wasn’t for Jim Dillon, our endearingly clever protagonist. He’s the type of smart-alecky hero who would be insufferable in real-life, but infuses this novel with enough interest to see us through. Dillon is a legal hacker of sorts; he manages to find hidden tricks in the U.S. Constitution and exploits them to maximum effect. The Price of Power is a journey of sort for him; he’ll quit his job and go out on a limb to do what he thinks is right, possibly losing everything in the process. Though happenstance, he will find himself prosecuting one of the biggest constitutional cases in the history of the United States. Not only does he come out of his with his honour intact, but he even manages to get the girl in the process!

Dillon is one of the reasons why, in the end, the legal manoeuvrings in The Price of Power end up being much more interesting than the actual military firefights. All the SEALs fighting for America in this novel are as professional as we’d like them to be, but that doesn’t leave a lot of place for drama. Dillon, on the other hand, is a young man clearly out of his element. While the SEALs are pretty much going to win no matter what when faced with disorganized terrorist forces, Dillon can only depend on his cleverness and legal skills to find the quick trick to save his case. His adversaries are far more dangerous… and then there’s something about courtrooms that just compels dramatic interest. Whatever the reason, The Price of Power finds its groove in the legal suspense, not the military action. Some of the latter could have been cut without undue harm to the novel.

It helps considerably that Huston’s writing is clear and to the point. What doesn’t work as well is part of his overall premise. Sure, the President of the United States has the responsibility to protect the citizens of his country against all dangers, but does that mean he can be impeached if he refuses to use military force? It sounds a lot like right-wing rhetoric and probably is, but Huston does only a fair job at exploring these issues. Some of it simply sounds silly: “Are you a pacifist, Mr. President?”

No matter; I found myself unexpectedly captivated by Jim Dillon and The Price of Power, reading a bit too late in the night just to see what would happen next. While it would be a bit much to claim that The Price of Power is anything more than simply a good thriller, it does deliver the goods splendidly. It wouldn’t do to ask much more than that.

[November 2002: Balance of Power is indeed the setup. Though it’s not mandatory reading, it does add a lot to the story and proves to be a quick enjoyable read, even to those who have read the second volume. Ironically enough, the flaws and strength of the first volume are almost identical to its sequel: Great protagonist, excellent legal hacking, but boy do things get boring whenever we’re dealing with the military side of things.]