Whack a mole

If this were a comic series, some sort of earth-shattering alien threat would be introduced to give the invincible hero some challenge

Published: 16th December 2017 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th December 2017 06:41 PM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

Jack Higgins introduced the character of Sean Dillon, an ex-IRA militant now turned special operative, in the 1993 book Eye of the Storm. In that well-received book, he was the anti-hero, initially being hunted by the good guys.

Dillon now makes his 22nd appearance in The Midnight Bell. Over time, our anti-hero has become a proper good guy, taking up arms against a variety of baddies, and joined a group of agents nicknamed “The Prime Minister’s Private Army”.

The stories have also reached that point where, if this were a comic series, some sort of earth-shattering alien threat would be introduced, just to give the invincible hero some challenge.

Unfortunately, this is a standard-issue thriller, so the villain remains easily defeatable. Since the last few Sean Dillon novels, Al Qaeda has been the villain, or more properly, a Europe-based section head of Al Qaeda with the title of The Master. Each subsequent Master has been defeated pretty roundly.

The latest book once more features a new Master, now based off a barge in Paris. As before, his powers seem limited to sending incompetent goons to harass Dillon’s various friends. Said goons get defeated in short order, making the story feel like a ‘Whack a Mole’ game.

Besides the Master thread, there is also the character of Sam Hunter, who is a mercenary for hire, looking to get a lucrative war contract from the American president. Sean and his army are suspicious of him, and their suspicions are proved right when Hunter tries to blackmail a transport businessman into smuggling antiques. But just like the plot of this book, Hunter never quite gets going, until he turns into an anti-hero himself.

As a relative newcomer to Jack Higgins, I find it hard to understand the appeal of this book. The action scenes are peculiarly bloodless, often being resolved in literally a couple of lines with no exposition.

For example, there’s a scene where an airplane that Sean is piloting catches fire and he expertly pilots it down. The whole thing, from them noticing the fire to Sean deciding to risk the journey and landing it, is barely a page and a half! Similarly, murders, standoffs, fights, are all skimmed over, while idle chats between characters go on for pages at a time.

You realise the meaning of Higgins being called a “writer of clean adventure” in a back-cover blurb here.
Another thing that will annoy readers of modern thrillers is the simplistic and broad characterisation. Al Qaeda has been turned into a generic villain like Bond’s SPECTRE or Mandrake’s nemesis, Octon. Indeed, The Master could be right out of a comic book, with no explanation of the complex social factors.

The same treatment is given to the heroic characters that are all sharp, have a military history, and quick to the draw. There are far too many characters to distinguish from each other, and they’re introduced with no background.

It’s hard to recommend this book to anyone but a hardcore Higgins fan, and perhaps even she would be better served by trying out some of the more nuanced thrillers available.

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