Thursday, August 29, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE by Barry England

In an unnamed Asian country two western soldiers, MacConnachie and Ansell, escape from a column of marching POWs and make a run for it. Their goal is to make it across the hostile alien territory and reach the mountains, and safety, four hundred miles away. Yet all the while they're shadowed by an enemy helicopter, piloted by a nameless nemesis who's able to outguess their every move and mark their position for the ground troops chasing them down below...

And that's pretty much it as far as the plot's concerned. But that's really all that's needed because what we've got here is a great example of the existential chase thriller (the generic title kind of clues you in on the existential part). And while it may not be in the same league as Alfred Camus's classic, 'The Stranger,' I have to say this 1968 novel from Barry England gives that old warhorse a good run for its money (ahem) in the suspense stakes. For a start, it's a lot more gripping - and England doesn't waste any time diving into the action, either. In the very first paragraph, we see MacConnachie sidling up to Ansell with a curt, 'If I go left, will you come?' And then we're off the races for the whole rest of the book. Literally.

To be honest, everything is stripped down to such a level that I'm surprised the author even bothered to name his two protagonists - although maybe he thought that would be a little too minimalist, even for him. Still, we're not given their first names, and we're told almost nothing of their pasts or backgrounds either. England clearly doesn't want any unnecessary baggage getting in the way of his story. The past is irrelevant. Only the present matters. Survival is everything.

As it is, all we know about MacConacchie is that he's the older and more decisive of the two, that he's a professional soldier - possibly an NCO of some kind - who generally trusts his instincts and his years of experience to get him out of dangerous situations. Ansell's much younger, possibly still a teenager. But he's also smart, educated and insightful, with a natural-born knack for problem-solving. So clearly two opposites: the thinker and the doer. And it's through these two disparate characters that England's then able to go on and explore the whole spectrum of human experience. Despair, hope, self-belief, friendship, physical and mental adversity. All that good stuff we writers love. And readers too, of course.

As for the other details, we know there's a war going on between east and west, but we don't know the countries involved. The enemy, whether they be civilian or military, are simply referred to as 'Goons' all the way through. The US and Vietnam, maybe? Who knows? England certainly isn't saying. In fact, I'm only guessing that it's set in the east at all. The only clues are the references to the torrential rain seasons, which could equate to monsoons. And there's also a brief reference to the dark skin of a native boy. And it's mentioned more than once that our two heroes look different to the indigenous peoples. But to be honest, it could be anywhere. And it's immaterial anyway. It's really the relationship between the two main characters that matters the most. And the chase, of course.

For the rest of the book, we follow these two outsiders as they face one obstacle after another in their hopeless bid for freedom. And that's another thing. England makes it clear from the start that the situation is hopeless. That there won't be any happy endings. As the book progresses and their options narrow and their supplies dwindle down to nothing, it only becomes more and more obvious to them.

And the main reason for that is the presence of the third character, the enemy helicopter pilot chasing them. We never see his face or hear his thoughts, but he possesses an almost supernatural ability to locate MacConnachie and Ansell each time he returns from refueling. And then the game starts all over again. Duck and dive. Hide and seek. Hit and run. MacConnachie even gradually begins to respect him as one soldier to another, referring to his expertise with a certain reverence even as they try to outmaneuver him. Which they rarely do. At least, not for very long.

It's strange. On the one hand, by keeping things so stark England makes it hard to really know Mac and Ansell, yet it's surprising how well he brings the two men to life, given the restraints he sets for himself. Naturally, neither man likes the other too much at the beginning, but as the situation steadily worsens the relationship between the two men gradually strengthens to the point where they come to respect, and even love, each other. And not in a cliched way, either. Because everybody's a potential enemy, they know it's just the two of them against the world. In fact, it was only as I was reading the book for the second time that I realized that England also throws the four elements - fire, water, air, earth - at them at various points in the narrative. Man, when even nature's against you, you know you're really in some deep shit.

That's not to say the book's a total downer. Okay, it's no laugh riot, but during the earlier sections of the book England manages to insert the odd one-liner here and there - and usually when the reader least expects it. There's a fairly tense moment early on, for example, where Mac and Ansell watch two hundred soldiers closing in on them and Ansell turns to his partner and whispers, 'Nip along and see if they've got a couple of fags to spare, Mac. You're better at that sort of thing than I am.' That one sure took me by surprise - especially as there was no hint beforehand that these characters possessed a sense of humour. And I like how England divides the story into chapters but refuses to number them. Just a small thing, but that made me smile as well.

I also love how he keeps everything unexplained and indistinct throughout the book (I'm a big fan of 'The Prisoner' too). How the reader's left with more question than answers. For instance, we know the mountains represent freedom to these two, but we don't know why. Is it because the harsh terrain will allow them to finally lose the helicopter? Or is there a border of some kind over the next hill? Again, who knows? Your guess is as good as mine.

And then there's the climax, which is a real nail-biter. I mentioned there was no happy ending in this one, but that's not to say the climax isn't satisfying. Because it most assuredly is. The last line in particular stayed with me for hours afterwards, and that's really all I can ask of any book.

** They also made a movie version in 1970, which starred Robert Shaw as MacConnachie and Malcolm McDowell as Ansell. And I can't think of any other two actors more perfectly suited for the roles - they're both excellent. However, Shaw's adaptation of the book (he wrote the screenplay) is somewhat less successful. It's not bad as such, but he makes a few glaring changes (such as softening the ending and adding unnecessary backstory to the characters) which really don't help the film at all. Still, if you can find it on DVD for a decent price, I'd say it's definitely worth a look.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: THE HUNTER by Christopher Keane

Okay, I admit it - I'm kind of going outside the lines with this week's book, which purports to be a biographical account of Ralph 'Papa' Thorson's life as a modern-day bounty hunter. Except I've read 'The Hunter' a couple of times now and I'd be really surprised if even fifty percent of its contents are entirely factual. Now don't get me wrong - it's a thoroughly addictive read about a larger-than-life individual who actually was a well-known bounty-hunter, but it's really the format more than anything else that makes me doubt its veracity. At least, in places.

Because Keane writes the biography as though it were a novel, complete with definite character arcs for the main protagonists, extensive dialogue scenes, dastardly villains, the lot. Which isn't a crime, of course. Many biographers structure their works in the same way in order to accentuate the more dramatic elements of their subject's life, but in this case Keane really stretches the bounds of reality.

For one thing, he constantly hops between various characters' POV to let the reader experience those individuals' thoughts and hopes, which strikes me more as artistic license than straight reporting. And on a number of occasions there are scenes between peripheral characters that Keane couldn't possibly know about. I'm thinking in particular of a scene between two Hell's Angels, one of whom is an extremely violent paranoid schizophrenic, which I'm pretty sure Keane made up entirely from scratch. And then there are the numerous dialogue scenes between various characters. These conversations are very plausible and natural-sounding and help make the narrative fly by, but I find it very hard to believe they were transcribed word for word. Assuming they happened at all. Take for example this scene between the flamboyant Winston Blue and his associate, where Papa doesn't even appear until the end:

     While Winston waited for Papa's familiar yellow Plymouth to cruise into the neighbourhood, he chatted with his recently acquired partner, a young Chicano he discovered in the Thrifty Discount Drugstore on Sunset Boulevard. The Chicano's name was Real.
     'Real?' Winston asked the kid. 'As in deal?'
     No, as in Ray-Al but the kid was so impressed by Winston's cool demeanor that he didn't want to disagree with him. Real it would be. Yet Real wasn't strictly Winston's partner, not the way Winston saw it. More accurate would be valet, slave, peon, vassal.
     'Real, that's me,' the kid replied.

Now, call me a cynic, but I very much doubt the author was present in Bloom's apartment at that point, so I think it's safe to say a little artistic license was employed here. And possibly in a few other places as well. I also can't help thinking that Keane already had one eye on a possible movie deal and wanted to make the book as attractive as possible to producers, which would certainly explain the numerous dialogue and action scenes that fill the book.

And speaking of which, this is another case where the eventual movie that got made went on to overshadow the source material. Which is a shame as the movie version of 'The Hunter' itself isn't really all that memorable. It's quite likely you've seen it on TV at some point, with Steve McQueen playing the part of Thorson (and looking far older than his 49 years). The film's enjoyable enough without being anything too special, but it's notable mainly for being the actor's last movie before succumbing to cancer in 1980. It's also notable for featuring the real Thorson in a small cameo as a bartender who helps McQueen get drunk. This is the man himself serving his screen counterpart:

As you can see, the real-life Thorson was a huge bear of a guy, far removed from the trim movie star presence of McQueen. But he was also one hell of an interesting fellow too, with many different facets to his character - which was probably what got McQueen interested in his story in the first place. At the time of the book's publication in 1975, not content with being the only full-time bounty hunter in the USA (his peers all worked part-time while juggling other jobs), he was also a fully ordained Bishop of The Temple of Inspired Living, a master bridge champion, a classical music aficionado, a serious astrologer, and a criminology alumnus of the University of California. It seems he was also one of those people who thrive on chaos, as his residence in North Hollywood was essentially a permanent open house for all kinds of disparate characters, all drawn in like moths to Thorson's charismatic presence. In addition, men he'd picked up and sent to jail would often come back and Thorson would end up counselling them, lending them money, and even helping them find proper work.

That's when he wasn't out chasing violent fugitives all over the country. A 1987 Los Angeles Times article claimed he'd caught more than 12,000 fugitives over the course of his 40 year career, which, if true, is an astounding number. I'm inclined to halve that figure just out of principle, but even so that's still pretty damn impressive. Obviously the book only focuses on a small fraction of those cases, and Keane actually lays it out as though everything happens over a set period of six or seven months. However, it's more likely Thorson recounted (and possibly embellished) the more memorable cases from his recent past and told the author to present them however he wanted, making sure to change certain names where necessary.

In any case, the rogues' gallery contained in the book is really something to behold. We get to meet the insane Branch Brothers, for instance, who started out as seven but have a habit of blowing themselves up so are now down to two, and possess a combined IQ of a loaf of bread. Or there's Boom Boom Jakowski, the aforementioned Hell's Angel who's so volatile and unstable that even other Hell's Angels are afraid of him. There's Paco Carrera, a Mexican drug wholesaler whose abduction from his native country by Thorson and two associates comes under the heading: 'The Mission Impossible Snatch.' Then there's the improbably named Myron Fish, a harmless electronics whiz who's so nervous around Papa that he ends up destroying everything of Papa's that he tries to fix.

There are also two other notable felons who run through the narrative from beginning to end. One is Tony Bernado, whose capture Papa keeps putting off in order to wind up his tight-fisted employer, bail-bondsman Richie Blumenthal. The other one is Rocco Mason, a speed freak who's just been released from prison and has sworn to kill Papa. Again, Keane gives us numerous scenes of Mason watching Thorson's house which he couldn't possibly have witnessed himself (again, assuming they happened at all) and its when you're reading these passages that you begin to question what else in the book might have come from Keane's imagination.

But all that said, 'The Hunter' is still a well-written, rollocking read and worthy of anyone's time. It's clear why Hollywood snapped up the rights as Ralph 'Papa' Thorson is a truly fascinating and unique character and deserves to be better known (he apparently died in the early nineties - possibly from a car bomb from a vengeful fugitive, possibly from natural causes). As you'd expect, the book went out of print some time ago, but used copies can be picked up relatively cheaply online. But a word of advice: you'll enjoy the story a lot more if you take it all with a grain of salt.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: BROTHERS by William Goldman

'Marathon Man' by William Goldman. Now there's a thriller for you. A critical and commercial success when it was published in 1974, this conspiracy thriller to end all conspiracy thrillers has only grown in stature with the passing of years, managing to influence a whole generation of crime writers in the process, myself included. And rightly so - it really is that good. And Hollywood also made a pretty fantastic film version too, with a cast to die for and an infamous torture scene that still freaks people out even today. But then you probably know all this already. But what you may not know is that twelve years later Goldman finally delivered a sequel to his most famous book. Just why he felt he needed to this when the original wrapped up everything quite nicely is something only he could tell you, but I'm just glad he did because the result's a real barnstormer of a novel.

It's also - and I mean this in the nicest possible way - completely batshit crazy.

The first clue is given in the prologue (titled '...before the beginning...' in a nice nod to the original), where we learn a few years have passed since the events of 'Marathon Man.' Scylla - government super spook and sibling of that's book's protagonist, Tom 'Babe' Levy - has been given a new face and a new voice and is recuperating on a remote desert island somewhere in the Caribbean, getting in shape with a daily regimen of intense exercise and healthy eating as he waits to be called into action once again. This is the very same Scylla, it should be noted, who was previously disemboweled by the psychotic nazi, Szell, and then somehow crawled halfway across Manhattan before finally dying in his brother's arms. Yes, that one.

So only a few pages in and it's clear we're in 'modern fairy-tale' territory - which is perhaps not too surprising when you remember Goldman also wrote the wonderful 'The Princess Bride'. It seems he just liked the character of Scylla so much that he thought, 'Screw it. I'm the writer, I can do what I want. So what if he's dead? I'll simply resurrect him,' and then proceeded to exactly that. And it gets better too. Or should I say, weirder. I hesitate to talk too much about the plot as Goldman, master storyteller that he is, packs the pages with some really great reversals and I really don't want to ruin it for those who haven't read the book. So I'll try to keep things as brief and opaque as possible - which won't actually be too difficult in this particular case.

Anyway, here goes. In a small town on the outskirts of London, two small brothers walking back from the sweet shop are vaporised when a house explodes. In New York, a violent cabdriver and his streetwise girlfriend find themselves agreeing to the bizarre sexual requests of a total stranger. In New Jersey, a young couple with everything to live for suddenly decide to commit double suicide. At the same time, Scylla is called back from this remote island and given a series of tests designed to see whether he's fit for work or not. After passing with flying colours, Scylla's Division superior informs him that the world is on the brink of a global crisis ('...there's going to be a world war, America's going to start it, and counting you, three of us know'), and that it's all up to Scylla to avert it. Scylla accepts the challenge and soon learns that the three events that began the book are - surprise, surprise - all linked in some way and that they might hold the answers he seeks...

Now let me assure you that as odd as that pathetic excuse of a synopsis might sound, it's nowhere near as bizarre as the book itself. Nowhere near. In fact, at various points in the story the author comes dangerously close to science-fiction territory. Not that it matters, of course, because this is William Goldman we're talking about, and whatever else his faults, the man knows how to suck the reader in and keep him or her turning the pages. No matter how unbelievable everything becomes, you simply have to see what happens next. And he's also not ashamed to employ every narrative trick in his arsenal to help the process along either. You can be reading a scene thinking it's going one way only for the author to suddenly pull the rug out from under you in the last paragraph, sometimes in the very last line. And he keeps on doing it to you, relentlessly, scene after scene. It's great.

And the prose is pure Goldman too: both cynical and caustic, often with a healthy dose of humour thrown into the mix too. Scylla's the best example of this. While he merrily goes about his business of killing off various enemies of the state and averting World War Three, he's often making wry observations about the world around him that obviously match Goldman's own thoughts. Such as his initial impressions of the bustling San Juan International Airport:

All he knew was that more than their North American mainland neighbours, the Spanish visited airports. Was a third cousin going from Mexico City to Los Angeles? Fine. Twenty-two relatives would fit into a couple of vehicles and chug along. Was Aunt Consuela visiting Neuva York? Better to die than not be one of the fifteen who saw her off.

Or even better, his less than flattering opinion of Heathrow Airport (which still holds true today):

And how did some legendary architect manage it so perfectly, manage the seemingly impossible task of making every arrivals gate, no matter where in the world you came from, a good minimarathon away from the customs area. Somehow, you would imagine, there would have been a single slip, one gate where you could just smile good-bye to the stew, then a quick hip-hop and there you were, giving your passport. But no, Heathrow was sublime in its total disregard for human comfort.

Not only that, but Goldman (and by proxy, Scylla) fully understands how ridiculous and cliched the tropes of spycraft really are and takes great pleasure at mocking them at every opportunity. Often with farcical results. For instance, in one unforgettable scene, Scylla is to meet a Division recruiter at a museum and given a single password - 'blistering' - that will identify him to the man's receptionist. So naturally when the times comes, Scylla, who hates passwords with a passion, simply can't find it in himself to say it:

       Now the officious woman was back. 'Ah don't know whah ah fand this heat so ay-maz-in', ah just dew. It is sew hot.'
       Scylla stood there.
       'Yew dew agree?'
       Scylla made a questioning look.
       'The heat, the heat, ahm talkin' 'bout the heat.'
       She was beginning to get just a wee bit flustered. Scylla said, 'Definitely.'
       'How would yew descrahb it? How hot it is, ahm talkin' 'bout.'
       'There's a word - on the tip of mah tongue - ah just can't come up with it.'
       'If you could think what letter it began with, that would be a help.'
       'Ah believe it begins with a 'b.''
       'Oh, sure,' Scylla said, smiling. 'Brutally. I'm sure that solves your problem.'
       'It does not. That is a different word entirely.'
       'Bitch? As in 'hot as a bitch'?'
       'You are drifting further an' further away.'
       'I know the word,' Scylla said then. 'Berry.'
       She just looked at him. 'Berry?'
       'Sure. Didn't there used to be a comedian on 'Saturday Night Live' who said, 'Baseball been berry berry good to me'? Well, I say, 'It's berry berry hot out.' Are your problems solved?'
       He watched as she stormed up the stairs.

It's never been Goldman's style to stick to one POV, though, so along the way we also get to spend time with an eclectic cross-section of characters, such as Scylla's friend and immediate superior, Perkins - who, in both appearance and intelligence, bears a very close resemblance to Mycroft Holmes. And we also play catch-up with Scylla's brother, Babe, who's now a happily married professor of history at Columbia University. We meet two Division assassins who are forced to work together and spend most of their time threatening each other with painful death. There's The Blond, another assassin who gets his kicks by scraping the faces off his dead victims with a potato peeler and raiding their fridges for a post-slaughter snack. Or there's Grumpy, a mute dwarf information broker who gives out his information in the form of sidewalk art. And they're just a small sample of what's in store. But as you'd expect from Goldman, all are fully fleshed-out three-dimensional characters, and all are allowed their individual moments in the sun. Even the minor ones.

But how does it fare in comparison to its bigger brother, 'Marathon Man,' you ask? (see what I did there?) Well, let's be honest - very few sequels match up to their predecessors and 'Brothers' is certainly no different in that respect. Goldman even pokes fun at the problem when he has Scylla visit a movie theatre as part of his reconnaissance and forces him to sit through 'Return To Oz':

They really should pass a law, he thought, as he sat there: No Movie Sequels. Ever. Under threat of death or worse, banishment from Chasen's. Other arts didn't do it to this degree - Leonardo never made a Mona Lisa II. Michelangelo had a smash with his Sistine Chapel, but once was enough for him. Why would anyone feel the need to sully Judy Garland?

And then there's the ending. Don't worry - I'm not going to give anything away here, other than to say Goldman does his usual thing of finishing everything on a downer. It was the same with 'Marathon Man,' 'Magic,' 'Colour of Light,' and all the rest. It's like he just can't help himself. I can kind of understand it as I've seen Goldman interviewed a number of times and he always comes across a pretty pessimistic guy, so it's no surprise that that negativity flows through into his work. But I just wish he'd restrained himself a little more in this case, especially as this would prove to be his very last book before he focused entirely on writing screenplays. But other than that small gripe, 'Brothers' works just fine as a novel. All the way through, Goldman rations out the clues while holding back just enough for you to keep turning the pages, and that's a major prerequisite for a successful thriller. Just don't expect realism, that's all. 

And to be perfectly honest I think I've actually read this more times than I've read 'Marathon Man,' which must say something about the book's quality. Or maybe it says something about me. I don't know. In any case, if you're the kind of reader who enjoys something a little out of the ordinary then I suggest you check 'Brothers' out for yourself. You could do a lot worse.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: TIME OF RECKONING by Walter Wager

I'm not sure when I first picked this one up, but it was probably somewhere around the early-to-mid-eighties. And it was probably at a jumble sale (or 'yard sale' for US readers), as that was generally where I got most of my books back then. But I do remember this was the first time I'd come across a thriller by Walter Wager, and I came away pretty impressed. So much so that over the next few years I searched out more titles of his, including SLEDGEHAMMER, SWAP, OTTO'S BOY, VIPER THREE (filmed as the excellent TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING), 58 MINUTES (filmed as the not-so-good DIE HARD 2) and a few others I can't remember right now. But while I enjoyed them all well enough, none of them in my opinion came up to the high standards of TIME OF RECKONING.

The narrative is mainly concerned with two seemingly unconnected characters - a concentration camp survivor and an irrepressible CIA agent. We begin in the final days of WWII, where the US Army liberate the concentration camp in Dachau only to be presented with hundreds of gaunt-faced Jewish survivors. One of these is three-year-old Ernst Beller, whose entire family has been wiped out by the nazis. Fortunately, though, he's still got an uncle and aunt living in the States, and he's soon repatriated and sent to live with them. As he grows to manhood, 'Ernie' Beller sets out on a brilliant medical career, but he's also got a long-term agenda in mind, which is to avenge the deaths of his countrymen. Realizing that he's not going to have much success locating Martin Boorman and the rest if the Israelis have already failed, he decides instead to focus on those nazi war criminals who've already been sentenced and imprisoned for their crimes. And execute them.

Running parallel to all this we also get glimpses into the career of a maverick and unruly CIA agent known only as 'Merlin' as he rapidly makes a reputation for himself as the 'man who gets things done.' Moving into the present day, Merlin arrives in Berlin where he's tasked with tracking down a group of Marxist terrorists who are intent on blowing up as much of Western Europe as they can. At the same time Beller also arrives in Berlin to visit the first of his targets, unaware that he and Merlin are destined to cross paths somewhere down the line...

So on the face of it, nothing too out of the ordinary, at least plotwise. Nazis, revenge, terrorists, spies, CIA agents, shootouts. All present and correct. But it's really the style that matters here - because it's only after a few pages that you begin to realize Wager is clearly parodying the whole thriller genre, while at the same time sticking very close to the tropes and conventions of that genre. It's really a nice piece of work from a writer who made his regular living from these kinds of stories, although I'm not sure anybody else got the joke. On the back of my paperback, for example, there's a blurb from the Weekender that reads, 'A swift, suspenseful action novel written in a no-nonsense style.' Sure, it's suspenseful, and it's pretty swift too, I guess. But 'no-nonsense style'? I'm not sure what book that particular reviewer was referring to, because it sure wasn't the same one I read. And it seems he's not the only one, as there are a number of reviews online that seem to miss the point, as well.

But I don't know how they can, because it's so obvious.

Almost every chapter (and there are 48 of them in total) starts off in a wildy irreverent manner, as though the omniscient narrator can't believe anybody's going to take any of this seriously. For instance, Chapter 4 begins like this:

     Uncle Martin had once met Freud.
     Sigmund Freud, the one with the cigar and the mother number.
     It wasn't that surprising if you knew that Uncle Martin graduated third in the class of 1925 at the U. of Vienna med school and went on to become a full-fledged psychoanalyst. Even his few enemies had to admit there wasn't a therapist in his age group who was more fledged than Martin Beller.

Or there's this passage that opens Chapter 13:

     'He'll see you now,' Miss Rasmussen said crisply.
     Donna Rasmussen was a person to be treated with respect. She was not only the executive secretary to the deputy director for operations of one of the largest and sneakiest organizations in the world, but she was also the best female bowler on the entire CIA headquarters staff. Penny Levine had beaten her in 1974, but had been out of the competition since being transferred to Buenos Aires.

And here's the beginning of Chapter 16:

     Everybody gets born, but there are a million ways you can do it. Some are born rich, others are born premature, quite a few as Chinese, and a few theatrical types check in as Siamese Twins - on the cusp between Libra and Scorpio. It is better to be born in summer as you'll have a better chance of survival.
     Merlin was born American, lucky and optimistic - a trifle too optimistic. Freda Cassel was not in bed when he reached her small but pleasantly furnished apartment...

I ask you, how can you not warm to a book where you begin every chapter by giggling out loud? It's impossible. And as if that isn't enough you've got this Merlin character, who's the uber-cool superspy archetype taken to its most ridiculous extremes. That's not to say he isn't a compelling character, because he is, but he's also about as far removed from reality as you can get. Nothing's beyond him. Not only is he a perfect shot, but he's been everywhere, he's done everything, and he knows just about everyone. And he's got a witty rejoinder for every situation, too, such as when the Berlin police question him in the aftermath of a shootout at the local CIA station:

     The cop nodded. It was one of those messes. 'You have any kind of official identification, Herr 'Wasserman'?' 
     'No, just my passport. I'm a furniture salesmen.'
     'I'll bet.'
     'Tell your men that some friends of mine will be here soon, five or six men in cars and a U.S. Army ambulance,' Merlin said.
     'All furniture salesmen?'
     Merlin nodded.
     'All armed like you?'
     'Some may be carrying submachine guns. It's a highly competitive business, sergeant.'

Okay, so obviously the book's not to be taken too seriously, but does it actually work as a thriller? Well, yes it does, actually. Wager's too much the professional to allow the humour to completely overshadow the suspense elements, and so he makes doubly sure to keep the tension high throughout.

On the one hand you've got Beller's mission of vengeance, which is probably the most absorbing part of the plot, as he expertly plans and then disposes of one imprisoned nazi after another, improvising whenever obstacles fall into his path (as they inevitably do). It's like a warped version of Mission: Impossible, but with only one team member, who just happens to be a whole lot smarter than everybody else. And insane, to boot. Well, maybe not insane, but Wager makes clear from the start that Beller isn't exactly playing with a full deck (which is kind of understandable after what he went through as a toddler). And then you've got Merlin working against the clock as attempts to track down the evil terrorists, who decide to up the stakes by kidnapping the local CIA station director as a little extra insurance. Who's also Merlin's ex-wife. Whom he's still in love with. So there's that, too.

So as you can see, there's definitely no shortage of suspense. And it helps that you care for the characters too, especially Beller, whom the reader is fully behind all the way through (be honest, who doesn't like seeing nazis being murdered?). So when Merlin 'completes' his assignment and is left with an unexplained death that sets him on Ernie Beller's trail, you're kind of in two minds about the whole thing. On the one side, you're really hoping Merlin fails in his quest and that Beller gets away with it all, but you also can't help looking forward to seeing how these two bizarre characters will interact with each other once they finally meet. Fortunately, Wager doesn't let the reader down. He fashions a really satisfying climax (and one that's not nearly as action-packed as you'd expect), not least because the reader finally comes to realize that these two protagonists are both as crazy as each other. And just as homicidal. The only difference being that one of them is officially sanctioned by the US Government.

It's just a shame the author didn't continue with this semi-spoof style for his subsequent thrillers as he could have found a nice little niche for himself in the marketplace. Or maybe he simply felt he'd gotten it out of his system with this one. No way of knowing now, though, since Wager's no longer around to tell us his side of the story. As it is, his TIME OF RECKONING still stands up as a great little thriller that's unafraid to acknowledge its own preposterousness. And for that, it should be applauded.