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Assassin, The – Review

by: Coonts, Stephen

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY

Location: 175 Fifth Ave

Copyright: 2008

Cover: Joshua Sheldon

Type: Paperback

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 1/2/2009


Summary: Abu Qasim, an al Qaeda terrorist leader is on the loose and private industry has banned together under the leadership of CIA operative Jake (what else?) Grafton and his trusty sidekick, Tommy Carmellini, to defeat him.


All the typical ingredients of an international spy-adventure thriller: superhero, super villain, damsel in distress, civilization hangs in the balance. The good guys lose a few, but ultimately win. Stephen Coonts does not employ super-gadgets or typical super hero powers to move his story along. Instead the focus is on human foibles and hubris.

The main characters are Jake Grafton, a CIA employee, and his trusty side-kick, Tommy Carmellini. Although it sounds like the Batman and Robbin duo-pre-Christian Bale and “Batman Begins”, an awesome commandeering of a comic book-Grafton and Carmellini are merely spikes on the tires of a bureaucratic lawn mower. The storyline is a snippet of current-events editorializing: the United State government is incapable of dealing with threats from non-traditional adversaries such as terrorists, so a group of well-heeled fat cats get together to fund a counter-terrorism effort. The effort of course is discreetly sanctioned by the government. Kind of reminds you of the Kenneth C. Bucchi book on the U. S. government’s war on drugs, C.I.A: COCAINE IN AMERICA? (reviewed here in December 1994). The difference is that Bucchi was supposed to be writing history. Coonts is exercising his considerable talents at fiction. He does a good job.

The story pivots around the damsel in distress. In this instance, one Marisa Petrou. Is she the daughter of Abu Qasim, arch-terrorist extraordinaire, a man who changes his appearances like the seasons, who is always one step ahead of the intelligence services trying to eliminate him? Or is Marisa Petrou the adopted daughter of a wealthy Swiss family who herself was once captured and tortured by same said Abu Qasim? Will Jake Grafton be able to thaw efforts of mastermind extraordinaire Abu Qasim to kill off the well-heeled fat cats pouring money into his covert operations? Will trusty side-kick Tommy Carmellini and damsel in distress, possibly daughter of the mastermind extraordinaire Abu Qasim, fall madly, madly in love and escape to a daytime soap opera? Is the sound of ricocheting of AK47 bullets the new ambiance of singing in the rain? Never mind. These are rhetorical questions.

None of the characters in this novel come across as flesh and blood people. But it is an entertaining story because it attempts to straddle the line between reality and wishful thinking. It feeds into the perception that terrorists are super-human adversaries who can only be dealt with by super-human heroes. Since there are no super-human heroes, we are left with a cranky, experienced CIA agent and a covert group of super-well-heeled fat cats throwing money into the battle. More to the point, the laws governing the Western concept of civilization do not apply to terrorists. Coonts does and excellent job of focusing on the issue without really bringing it up as an issue-except in passing.

When Jake Grafton meets Huntington Winchester, the mogul who pitched the idea of a privately financed terrorist hunt to the President, Grafton tells him, “Our problem, Mr. Winchester, is not finding men and women to fight terrorists, it’s finding the terrorists. That is the most pressing problem facing the Western world today. We are looking for violent criminals who hide among the innocent, look just like them, behave just like them, except for that few seconds when they becomes soldiers for the Devil”. It is an interesting soliloquy. It is interesting because what it seems to be saying is that the war on terrorists is really the age-old war against the anti-civilization elements of the world-those most societies have deemed criminals. Within this context of semantics, THE ASSASSIN does a service. How does a society-in this case, world society-treat its criminals? Of course, the question assumes that criminals are a part of society-a dysfunctional part but a part nevertheless. Maybe they are not. Maybe they are an aberration one level below your murderer, rapist, or Bernie Madoff type characters.

In THE ASSASSIN, terrorists are so far beneath society-civilization–that special means must be employed to address them. Makes a good adventure story. But the danger in becoming “uncivilized” to address this scourge is only hinted at in THE ASSASSIN. Of course, a few of the wealthy financiers of the covert CIA anti-terrorist effort are killed by the terrorists. But one suspects that there is something worst than death in fighting terrorists and that is life having slithered in the same gutter in which they were formed. This may be a point that THE ASSASSIN is making-covertly.



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