Kyle Mills

Fade, Kyle Mills

Fade, Kyle Mills

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. has the proper May 2006 release date.]

Smoke Screen, Kyle Mills

Smoke Screen, Kyle Mills

Signet, 2003 (2004 paperback reprint), 387 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-21278-9

After five conventional thrillers, it’s a welcome change of pace to see Kyle Mills try something new with Smoke Screen.  After repeatedly tackling sweeping threats to the nation, he here dispenses with his established style to tackle an entirely different subject with a brand new storytelling mode and an unlikely hero.

At first glance, there isn’t much to distinguish Trevor Barnett from countless other men in their early thirties.  Still stuck in a routine of dull low-level office work, weekend parties, attempts to find a girlfriend and prove to his parents that he’s worthy of their name, Barnett nonetheless has a few things going for him:  For one thing, his entire life revolves around cigarettes.  The family fortune was made on tobacco, and a twisted inheritance deal has him locked into tobacco-related jobs until retirement.  In the early days of the twenty-first century, however, that’s not the kind of thing that he cares to share with others.

His break from routine comes when, in a drunken stupor, he summarizes a complex report to a blunt sentence and accidentally has that summary delivered to the board of directors.  That’s when the CEO of the company he works for develops a liking to our narrator and puts him in charge of ever-more-challenging files.  Before realizing it, Trevor becomes an unwilling spokesperson for the entire industry just as a complex power-play is put in action.  Trevor soon will have enemies he didn’t even imagine it was possible to have.

One of Mills’ biggest strengths as a writer has always been his conceptual audacity.  Whereas other writers will feature drug-fighting heroes, Mills would rather imagine the massive intentional poisoning a chunk of the drug supply and the reaction of the authorities deal with the fallout.  In other novels, he imagines powerful cults not named Scientology, sends an FBI agent to become a master terrorist and supposes that Hoover’s secret files were still potent and around for the taking.  This kind of risk-taking is also at the heart of Smoke Screen, which takes on a feel halfway between Carl Hiaasen and Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking in delivering a low-thrill thriller that still manages to keep readers hooked from beginning to end.

The tone alone is worth a mention.  Trevor, from the very first few pages, is portrayed as someone for whom the tobacco industry has no secrets.  He’s familiar with arguments for and against what he does, delivering color commentary at his TV as anti-tobacco advocates make their pitch.  He knows that anti-smoking groups are largely financed by tobacco money; he understands how the government doesn’t really want to stop cigarettes tax revenue; he’s able to tie smoking to good old-fashioned American rights.  More than anything, though, he’s tired of the whole debate and when he gets a public platform, honesty is his first policy.

There’s really only one scene of traditional guns-and-perils suspense in the entire novel, and it comes as a bit of an intrusion.  Most of Smoke Screen’s fun is in following Trevor along as he tries to figure out whose pawn he is, and whether he can actually have an impact in the middle of his carefully scripted reactions.  There’s a bit of romance to spice things up, but there’s also quite a bit of unusual thinking about smoking and what the social response to it should be.  Mills is too smart to favour either stark pro/anti extremes, and his ultimate position is one that’s easy to respect.  One could quibble with some aspects of the plotting (market forces would not allow such a national shortage!), but there’s a speculative aspect to the novel that’s worth suspending disbelief over.

But if Smoke Screen has a pleasant depth in term of ideas, it’s first and foremost a terrific read: Trevor is an engaging narrator, and his adventures are worth following even when they don’t involve mastermind terrorists or national conspiracies.  In fact, I have no trouble calling Smoke Screen Mill’s most enjoyable novel yet: an original thriller that delivers a bit more than the compelling reading experience that we expect from genre entertainment.  It’s rare enough to see writers stretch a bit outside their usual marketing boundaries: to see someone succeed at it is even better.

Free Fall, Kyle Mills

Avon, 2000, 466 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-109802-7

At first glance, there really isn’t much to distinguish Free Fall from dozens of other run-of-the-mill thrillers. Here’s a presidential campaign; here’s a young woman targeted by a conspiracy; here’s a renegade policeman who breaks all the rules; here’s a top-secret document that contains explosive secrets. No, Free Fall isn’t particularly original: from crooked politicians to evil henchmen, it uses stock elements from Central Plotting.

But why be original when you can be good?

The magic words on the cover are “Kyle Mills”: While I haven’t been enthusiastic about any of his books (Heck, I felt so indifferent about his Burn Factor that I filed it in my library without reviewing it), there’s a better-than-average quality to his work that’s hard to dismiss. Rising Phoenix had a fascinating premise about poisoning America’s drug supply, while Storming Heaven involved a conspiracy from a sect that was not called Scientology. But those starting points were backed-up by a solid execution, most notably in the characterization of series protagonist Mark Beamon. While the only distinctive thing about Free Fall‘s premise may be the MacGuffin (Hoover’s secret FBI files), Beamon is back here in a third instalment that builds upon the strengths and consequences of his previous adventures.

I know that I’ve been hard on some thriller authors for endlessly recycling their heroes in adventure after adventure. Most of the time, there is a solid basis to that complaint: All too often, the authors reset all or part of their universe from one book from another, trying to leech off their protagonist’s popularity without dealing with the consequences of their actions. But Mills won’t have it like that: The consequences of Storming Heaven are a big part in Free Fall‘s setup as Beamon starts this novel under the glare of public scrutiny (including the federal government) for his role in the leak of dozens of very damaging telephone conversations. His reputation at the bureau both destroyed and enhanced thanks to the events of the previous novel. Part of the fun in Free Fall is seeing him exploit and suffer from his fame. Now that’s how to continue a series.

Mills’ typical gift for characterization and his keen sense of politics also help him flesh out the essential dynamics of the novel to a better extent than many of his colleagues: Beamon is exceptional as a series hero, believably intuitive and clever enough to think his way out of trouble with a certain hangdog style. Meanwhile, Free Fall earns the distinction of portraying a corrupt politician in a way that almost seems refreshing. As a third-party presidential candidate, it’s easy to guess that David Hallorin is a bad guy (it almost always ends up that way in American political fiction), but Mills is frighteningly good in portraying the mechanics of demagoguery: Hallorin’s official speeches and policies don’t sound bad at all. Even better: The last few pages of Free Fall are a neat little trick of political complexity, pitting unpleasant characters against each other not in order to secure a win, but to balance out the evils in the hope that everything will hold together just a bit longer. For those who think that “final solutions” (often in the form of a bullet) are an overused tool of suspense novels, this is nothing short of a lovely cap to a satisfying novel.

But more than individual coups, it’s the way that Free Fall is put together, often surprising and keeping us off-balance, that makes it all worthwhile. There are coincidences, stereotypes, abrupt reversals, conventional mechanics and overused ideas, but they’re put together and tweaked just so that they appear almost afresh. The dialogues alone are better than average. It also helps that Mills’ own pet obsessions are featured in the novel: A rock climber himself, Mills has included a number of mountaineering scenes in Free Fall and if it’s often difficult to visualize the mountaineering action, it’s described with such crackling passion that even the fuzziness doesn’t matter.

Written like a rocket, with enough suspense both visceral and intellectual, Free Fall is enough to make me wonder why I haven’t looked for any of Mills’ last few novels. While it doesn’t carry with itself the electric shock of a thriller packed with innovations, it’s more than able to play with preexisting conventions. Don’t be surprised to find yourself reading it after hours.

Rising Phoenix, Kyle Mills

Harper Choice, 1997, 486 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-101249-1

I recall being rather impressed by Kyle Mills’ second novel, Storming Heaven, a fun thriller animated by a vast conspiracy, a chilling sect inspired by Scientology and good-old-fashioned police work. It wasn’t particularly original, but it was very well executed and featured an interesting protagonist in the character of maverick FBI agent Mark Beamon.

For the same reason, I was hesitant to pick up Rising Phoenix, Mills’ first novel also featuring Mark Beamon. Had the second volume featured enough spoilers to ruin the first novel? Would this first effort measure up to the standards of the second book?

As is turns out, Rising Phoenix is a different book. First, it’s not spoiled by Storming Heaven. The two stories are very distinct, and it’s almost an accident if they both happen to have the same protagonist. Certainly, no major events or secondary characters cross over in more than a passing mention.

Furthermore, whereas Storming Heaven had a run-of-the-mill concept helped by a great execution, Rising Phoenix is closer to an original premise given life in a very ordinary fashion.

It starts as a nationally-renowned preacher gives carte blanche to an assistant (as it turns out, a sadistic ex-policeman with a record of excessive brutality) to solve, once and for all, the drug problem in America. The operative then goes and executes a plan near and dear to his heart; poison a substantial fraction of the Columbian drug supply with a deadly spore. One whiff of the poisoned material and the poison starts to act. Two weeks later—goodbye, drug user.

Terrorism by any other name, this action quickly strikes fear among the drug-using population of the United States. Given the latency period, it’s nearly impossible to quickly detect the contaminated shipments. Thousands quit their nefarious habit, drug prices shoot through the roof, Columbian drug lords go nuts and several citizen applaud the gesture. This uncommon ambiguity is further heightened when the preacher has remorse, drug lords dispatch their operatives to catch the poisoner and the government has to do something to stop the health catastrophe.

It’s up to special agent Mark Beamon to investigate the case and catch the culprit, a culprit who turns out to be an old acquaintance of his. And this is where Rising Phoenix takes a departure from a fantastic premise over to a hum-drum thriller. It’s almost as if Mills didn’t know what to do with his initial concept and had to stick in a hero to bring back law and order. It’s not as interesting as seeing an unconventional plan do some ambiguous good, mind you. A bit like Vince Flynn’s Term Limit, it’s as if the authors had to de-fang their initial idea with something closer to what the general public is able to stomach.

Oh well. At least the novel is competently written. While the concept of “poisoning America’s drug supply” may sound dubious at first, Mills makes it uncommonly believable. He also paints his characters with some skill, though the image of the antagonist is muddled though inconsistent heroics. The other letdown is the way in which an interesting political debate is toned down in favour of more straight-up police thriller mechanics. Then again, this is Mills’ first novel: some flaws are to be expected, such as the unfortunately confusing action scenes and the imperfect characterization.

But what Rising Phoenix clearly does establish is Kyle Mills’ potential as a thriller writer to watch. While both of the novels I’ve read from him so far have had flaws, they still remain good examples of capable genre novels. Worth a look.

Storming Heaven, Kyle Mills

Harper, 1998, 499 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-101251-3

Looking at genres, from time to time, I despair: Is it possible to do something new or innovative any more? A standard thriller features a lone protagonist who loses everything by fighting a vast conspiracy. Betrayals, unlikely allies and multiple murders usually complete the picture. In this familiar context, is it possible to create something interesting?

Well, yes. Any sufficiently-capable author can still work wonders with even the most overused plot. It all depends on good characters, interesting twists and good writing. Kyle Mills’ Storming Heaven doesn’t deviate a lot from the usual thriller plot, but the execution of the premise makes it all seem fresh, somehow.

It starts with a murder, obviously. This time, a suburban millionaire couple is found dead in their home. Their teenage daughter is missing. FBI agent Mark Beamon (suitably renegade enough to serve as our protagonist) suspects something is up. His investigation eventually uncovers disturbing links between the young girl and a vast new religion with links to a telecommunication empire and a few paramilitary operatives.

Scientology, anyone? Not quite. Clearly, some parallels exist: The Kneissians do pillory their opponent through lawsuits, have an ongoing feud with the German government and operate according to a series of “levels” similar to the real-world sect, but Mills take the concept much farther. The Church of Kneiss is actually closer to Scientology++, if you want: Mills imagines a new religion that consciously uses the latest techniques in marketing and social manipulation to set up a brand-new system of belief. Without the “limiting factor” [P.236] of outdated dogma that holds back established religions.

Every jaded reader should be paying attention at this moment; while real-world governments are too ponderous to engage in conspiracies and businesses are too subject to market fluctuation to be menacing, religion is something else. When its influence comes crashing down on our protagonist, there isn’t much he can do to stop them. It’s a formidable opponent, and our hero has to use his wits to extricate himself from an impossible situation.

Fortunately, this is yet another area where Kyle Mills distinguishes himself. We’ve seen countless smart renegade cops before, but few of them are as believable as Mark Beamon. He repeatedly demonstrates his intelligence without inexplicable leaps of logic or hand-waving. Storming Heaven‘s good characterization doesn’t stop there; the novel is filled with memorable supporting characters that resonate even weeks after finishing the novel. The young heroine herself is one of the most sympathetic kid-in-distress in recent memory, as she even gets a chance to shine her wits later in the novel.

Somehow, everything else seems sweeter when good characters are at the core. Even though the plot mechanics may seem familiar, they work much better when we care about the humans they affect. Beamon’s descent in obscurity is stronger, and so is his inevitable triumph.

A strong, unconventional, too neat conclusion ties everything together with an effective resolution that doesn’t dredge up the mano-a-mano cliché, and takes the time to deliver a few scenes of pure payback pleasure.

Well-written and well-executed, Storming Heaven is a shining thriller that can restore your faith in the tired old conspiracy genre. Strong characters remain at the core of the narrative, making this novel more than your run-of-the-mill escapist entertainment. The religious sub-themes are deftly handled and may make you think hard for a moment or two. Mills vaults in the ranks of promising thriller writers. More, please!