(On Cable TV, November 2018) As a quick trawl through this site’s archives shows, I’m more than familiar with the novels of Vince Flynn, from which American Assassin was adapted. Unfortunately, I wasn’t much of a fan back then, and most American thriller writers are now so far to the right that they’re often unreadable for any sane foreigner. American Assassin takes up that worldview verbatim, offering a vision of bloodthirsty terrorist hiding in every dark corner, gleefully mounting plans against all Americans and requiring the services of none other than a state-sanctioned psychopath. Someone very much like Mitch Rapp, traumatized by the violent murder of his girlfriend and positively lusting after revenge. You can probably write the rest of the film yourself, so closely does it adhere to the usual formula. Despite the numerous fights, chases and evil plans, it’s a surprisingly dull thriller. Nearly everything is on rails going from one plot point to another, and Dylan O’Brien doesn’t have what it takes to make a compelling protagonist out of what the script gives him. But someone else does, and it’s Michael Keaton—he shines brightly in a supporting role as a hard-as-nails mentor who positively relishes his job. Otherwise, some nice special effects illustrate a nuclear-driven climax. But that’s it—American Assassin plays to its paranoid base but doesn’t do the required legwork to reach out to a broader audience. It’s surprisingly boring whenever Keaton isn’t on-screen.
Pocket, 2001, 436 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-04734-5
After the trashing I gave to Flynn’s previous The Third Option, you would think that I’d stay away from any of his other books, let alone a direct sequel. But hope springs eternal, some authors can be forgiven the occasional awful novel and it’s entirely possible to succumb at a used book sale where everything is cheap, cheap, cheap.
So, onward with Separation of Power, which picks up moments after the conclusion of The Third Option. Once again, villains are running rampant over Washington and flawless hero Mitch Rapp is hunting them down. His attempts to find the real culprits of the previous book’s events soon take him to Italy (along with his civilian fiancée), where he’ll have to deal with a beautiful yet deadly assassin straight out of Central Casting. Meanwhile, brainy Irene Kennedy has been nominated to become the director of the CIA, drawing out plenty of political enemies, and Saddam is hiding nuclear weapons under an hospital in downtown Baghdad. Separation of Power isn’t quite a three-ring circus, but it’s scattered enough to make anyone feel like it is.
I should probably tone down my sarcastic tone right away, though, because even though Separation or Power breaks no new ground and is unlikely to be celebrated by anyone but the author’s most ardent fans, it’s still much better than The Third Option.
Oh, the annoyances picked up in the previous volume are still there: If there’s one genre that should just avoid series, it’s thrillers: Part of the fun of reading a suspense novel is in wondering how far the author will push it. Will presidents be killed, cities destroyed, countries devastated? Or will everyone live to sell another novel? When The Third Option ended with a pat “to be continued” promise, I surely wasn’t the only one to ask for my money back. At least Separation of Power offers a conclusion of sorts, even if it’s rushed in the last few pages.
Alas, Flynn is still padding his books with useless material. Had Separation of Power been half of its length, I wouldn’t be so picky. (Heck, had The Third Option and Separation of Power been one single 400-pages novel, I might have given it a passing recommendation) But when Flynn piles useless scenes one after another right when the plot should get underway, it’s hard to be forgiving. It all reaches an exasperating apogee in the latter half of the novel, as we take a trip through pure soap-opera romantic theatrics, reading pages after pages of mopping even as we know that it’s profoundly silly. Someone needs an editor, and quickly!
Fortunately, there is some good material buried under the morass of indifferent passages. Two good action scenes come late in the novel, saving it from total lack of interest. Plot-wise, it’s obvious that Flynn loves complications without understanding how they could all relate together: The connections between the three plot lines are tenuous if not ridiculous (see how Mitch Rapp gets to participate in all three for no good reason whatsoever!), even as they sheer kinetic force of the conclusion creates interest whether we want it or not.
(I should probably make a note of this as being Yet Another Pre-9/11 Anti-Saddam Novel. In retrospect, there’s plenty of material in 1990-2001 American thrillers to show the widespread blood thirst that America had for Saddam Hussein’s regime. Canny social psychologists will undoubtedly mutter something about how the Bush II regime was able to tap into those unconscious feelings to obtain popular support for an unjustified invasion. But I digress severely.)
All told, Separation of Power marks a slight step up for Flynn. It’s still average in almost all aspects, but at least it’s not actively bad, nor as dull as The Third Option. But we’re still far away from the promise shown in either of his first two novels: Before he started churning out those formula products, Vince Flynn had the spark of a real thriller author. Let’s just hope that he’ll regain it someday soon.
Pocket, 2000, 402 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-04732-9
Vince Flynn’s first thriller, Term Limits, was a provocative thriller in which super-patriot terrorists began killing corrupt politicians. While the novel later settled for a very disappointing conclusion closer to what we’d call “the usual thriller”, it was an original debut from a writer with potential. Flynn once again delivered the goods with Transfer of Power, a by-the-number hostage thriller in which the White House was taken over by Middle Eastern terrorists. Despite familiar plot mechanics, it was a decent enough novel with enough dynamic energy to make it interesting.
Sadly enough, Flynn’s third outing displays none of the interest and most of the flaws of his previous efforts. It’s dull, pointless and reminiscent of the type of so-called “thrillers” churned out by Robert Ludlum in his most featureless period.
There isn’t even a decent hook to draw us in. Once again, an American secret operative is double-crossed and left for dead. Naturally enough, he’s barely wounded and vows revenge on whoever betrayed him. There are friends in high places, enemies in equivalent positions and high-level political intrigue. Our hero is forced to flee, infiltrate, attack and punish. All of which has been done before in much more interesting stories.
Worse; in The Third Option (which refers to “special” intelligence work, once diplomacy and military force are no longer practical), Flynn explicitly brings back characters from his previous two novels. Super-agent Mitch Rapp is back as the protagonist (along with his girlfriend, with predictable plot developments) and Congressman Michael O’Rourke follows up from the events of Term Limits.
The biggest problem with continuing series is that it robs the reader of a sense of unpredictability. While this is acceptable -even comforting- in some genres such as the mystery genre (see Robert B. Parker’s Spencer series), it’s not an option in the thriller genre. Here, part of the pleasure of reading is in not knowing what can happen at a very high level. The president can be assassinated; a city can be incinerated; conspiracies can be uncovered; protagonists can die. Here, the stakes become correspondingly smaller. The magnitude of the thrill is reduced by built-in constraints. Any writer tempted to write, as Flynn is doing, “a series of political thrillers” would be advised to reconsider. (This goes double for editors trying to sell this stuff.)
The Third Option‘s conclusion is a splendid example of how series can hamper the thrills; all of our protagonists survive and some of the villains are caught while the bigger villains escape to strike another day, much like in any bad cartoon made for children. Thrills? Slight. Memorable impressions? Even slighter. Worse; the novel is padded, drawing out the unsatisfying conclusion. Some of the political manoeuvring is implausible even for a guy stuck in Ottawa, a fatal blow to a so-called serious “political thriller”.
To be entirely fair, it’s impossible to know at this point what Flynn has in mind for his series. Is it all leading up to a concluding tome which will kill the whole cast and send Washington in orbit? Maybe. In the meantime, though, does it mean his readers are going to be teased at every “thrilling” instalment waiting for something to happen? Why should their pay money and waste their time for this dubious privilege?
As it stands now, The Third Option is a setback for anyone paying attention to Flynn’s career. He’s not a terribly gifted writer on a technical level, so the success of his books tends to depend a lot on the plotting. Consequently, he can’t manage to hold any interest in a very average third novel. Worse; chances are that he’s managed to make anyone very indifferent to the prospect of a fourth one.
Pocket, 1999, 549 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02320-9
With the first part of Vince Flynn’s first novel, Term Limits, it was possible to imagine reading something new: A libertarian thriller backed by a major publisher. As corrupt politicians were offed by patriot executioners with nary a second thought by the author, it was a memorable departure from countless other thrillers stuck in their black-versus-white worldview. Of course, the book lost its nerve shortly afterward, and the rest of the narrative was focused on a chase to apprehend more classically evil “copycat” terrorists. (Though it’s worth remembering that the original virtuous terrorists almost get away with it.)
Transfer of Power is Flynn’s second novel, and as with many sophomore efforts, it’s more technically successful yet ultimately less satisfying.
It begins as so many other thrillers do, with an American operation deep behind enemy lines. Before long, a well-known terrorist is captured and brought back to the United States. During his in-flight interrogation, he reveals that his buddies are preparing something big. Against the President of the United States.
The alert is given too late, but not entirely too late. While the White House is taken over by the terrorists, the security service, warned by the CIA, manages to escape the threat and take refuge in a half-completed bunker. A jammer is installed, cutting off all contact between the president and his forces. The Vice-President takes command. Demands are made. No one can agree on what to do next.
Well, almost no one. As could be expected in this type of story, there is always one lone maverick who won’t hesitate to talk straight, think tough and act decisively. In Transfer of Power, this man (it’s always a man) is Mitch Rapp, a special forces operative who has pretty much all the talents needed to retake the White House.
The rest of the plot you can pretty much figure out by yourself, especially if you’ve seen DIE HARD and its imitators. No troubling moral questions here. There’s one shock moment near the end that is inevitable in retrospect, but still shows some guts. But most of all, Transfer of Power is built and executed according to formula. Nowhere is this more visible in the tacked-upon romantic subplot, which annoys and slows down the novel more than any other factor.
But if we discard the conventional structure, length is by far the worst of Transfer of Power‘s faults. Flynn’s novel simply doesn’t have the depth or complexity to sustain very nearly 550 pages. This type of book, to be efficient, needs to be snappy. And snappy it is not, with endless delays, romantic uselessness and far too much time spent waiting for something.
Still, if you’re after an averagely satisfying thriller, you could do worse than to try Transfer of Power. Despite the length, Flynn keeps things interesting, integrates interesting details in the narrative, adequately sketches his characters with effectiveness and generally knows how to deliver.
Expect a dumb-as-dirt Hollywood version sometime soon.
Pocket, 1997, 612 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02318-7
Most techno-thrillers are written from a moderately right-wing perspective. You know the type: Government is strong, government is good, politicians might be corrupt from time to time, but the honorable military shall set them straight. Plain “thrillers” (without the fancy techno-gadgets and usually from a non-military perspective) are more left-wing, with huge governmental conspiracies, paid CIA assassins, routine invasions of piracy and corrupt officials everywhere the protagonists can see.
One could write a pretty respectable Political Science / English Literature thesis on the political tendencies of modern thriller fiction. And one book almost certain to be included in any comparative study, despite its flaws, would be Vince Flynn’s Term Limits.
The novel explicitly differentiate itself from other thrillers by opening up with this quote:
…Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government… it is their Right, it is their Duty, to thrown off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.
A line from some random anarchist author? Hardly. That’s an excerpt of The Declaration of Independence, by Thomas Jefferson.
For a while, Term Limits has the strength of Jefferson’s convictions. In the first few pages, Flynn paints the portrait of a corrupt American government ready to strongarm -even blackmail- lesser congressmen into voting for a controversial budget. Bad-boy National Security Advisor is introduced. Good-boy junior congressman is introduced. Three senior politicians are assassinated.
This is where the novel gets interesting, because in Flynn’s universe, these three politicians deserved to die. Flynn’s protagonist expresses satisfaction at seeing them taken out of the picture. Polls indicate that most Americans couldn’t care less about the death of three Washington fat cats. The so-called “terrorists”’ demands are pretty darn reasonable: A balanced national budget and, later on, term limits for federal politicians.
So far so good. Even though the whiff of personal libertarian politics is pretty strong, there’s a lot to be said for vigorous argumentation of contrarian viewpoints. So the bad guys aren’t bad guys and the good guys aren’t good guys. Strike one for original ambiguity.
Unfortunately, this moment soon passes, and more assassinations are committed, though this time the targets are far less deserving than the three original victims. As modus operantis doesn’t exactly match, it becomes obvious that there are copycat terrorists. But who are they? And what’s their purpose?
That’s where Term Limits loses a lot of interest, becoming yet another routine race-against-time-and-terrorists like we’ve seen so many times before. Everyone get what they deserve. The End.
The initial political specificity of Term Limits never disappears, but the impression is that it’s been sidestepped in favor of some rather more conventional thriller dynamics. The interesting issues of the beginning are ignored until they progressively disappear in the background.
At least the writing is clear -if a bit clunky in character exposition-, the protagonists suitably sympathetic and the pacing remains brisk, so that even apolitical readers will enjoy the book as solid entertainment. But those who expected an absorbing new take on american politics are bound to be disappointed after the first hundred pages, because Flynn can’t be bothered to explore the questions that he himself raises.
Perhaps he’s waiting for a Political Science / English Literature major to do it…