by Ted Bell
Given some of the elements of the book's plot, it required a fair degree of chutzpah for bestselling thriller-writer Ted Bell to title his latest Overkill, but that's exactly what the latest Alex Hawke adventure is called. Of course, any adventure featuring omni-competent “counterspy” Hawke is already going to be prone to hyper-masculine territory marking, since Bell writes Hawke with an almost parodic he-man voyeurism: Hawke is lean and handsome, drives and shoots only the finest hand-crafted devices, and, despite being a chain-smoking alcoholic, moves “with the jaunty confidence of a world-class athlete.” All of his lady friends are beautiful, seductive, and fond of wearing his dress shirts – and nothing else, natch – in the lazy mornings while he casually prepares his award-winning eggs Benedict, and all of his guy friends are extravagantly fantastic at whatever they choose to do. In previous novels, readers have seen Hawke do everything short of single-handedly stopping Lex Luthor and the Legion of Doom. It can all be just on the wearying side of hilarious.
But it's not just Hawke's well-coiffed presence that pushes Overkill's altimeter levels into the troposphere – it's the main bad guy: none other than Vladimir Putin himself. At the beginning of the book, he'd thought things were going fine. He was the ruthless dictator of a revanchist Russia, respected at the world's conference tables despite his recreational habit of having political rivals poisoned and journalists shot on the street for sport. And what's more, as Bell makes clear in one of the book's multiple nauseating sops to his paleo-Conservative readership, he's finally been lucky in his most important international relationship:
The election of a new American president had given him added hope. Here at last was a strong leader who understood how the world really worked; a businessman who knew the art of negotiation and the need for decisiveness rather than coy evasiveness. Here finally was an opponent driven by hard reality rather than wispy dreams.
If Bell's Putin can see sweeping, crippling economic sanctions as “wispy dreams,” it's little wonder that he's equally disillusioned when it comes to the teeming kleptocracy he commands. For Peter the Great's sake, there are petty criminals and grasping autocrats everywhere! He misses the straightforward simplicity of his old KGB days, when a man could order his personal attorney to strangle a reporter without any fuss and bother – but now, there's so much suspicion and back-biting and paperwork. Wondering if he might be facing a coup, he boards his private jet at night and parachutes out over France. He's anonymous as he wanders the countryside of Provence without the vast security state that once served him. “He was the warrior,” Overkill breathlessly tells us. “He was in the field. His brains and his courage were his only weapons now.”
As if that weren't sufficient front-loading, the scene shifts to beautiful St. Moritz, where Hawke and his young son Alexei are enjoying a Christmas holiday when suddenly their tramcar malfunctions high above the snowy ground, terrifying everybody on board (except Alex, of course): “The floor beneath their feet dropped away – a sickening drop of a foot or two before jerking to a stop as the damaged cable somehow shouldered the shifting weight,” after which, needless to say, “You could hear a pin drop inside.”
When the car gives way and catastrophe ensues, Hawke is separated from his son in the chaos, and when he wakes up at the hospital, his son is missing – it seems that the helicopter rescue team never brought the boy in from the crash. At least, this is what Hawke's old Scotland Yard ally Chief Inspector Ambrose Congreve hears when he gets a late-night phone call at his cozy cottage in the Cotswolds, where Hawke tells him he's currently in “hoosegow” – he uses the term “hoosegow,” repeatedly, because he's a character in a novel and he knows it – locked up because after he left the hospital, he went to “the neighborhood pub,” downed half a dozen scotches, and proceeded to beat up a bunch of helicopter rescue workers. He uses one of his few allowed phone calls to tell Congreve that he has a plan, but Congreve is ahead of him: “Find the man in charge of the rescue mission helicopter and you'll find your son.” To which Hawke responds, ““Bravo. You've not lost your much-vaunted powers of deduction, Chief Inspector.”
Keep in mind, all of this: the neighborhood pub, the half-dozen scotches, the assault on the only people who can help him, and the arch joshing about much-vaunted powers of deduction … all of this is coming from a father whose son has just disappeared.
Newcomers to these books will find things like this extremely strange (no character in Overkill jokes or quips more than Hawke, during the many chapters when he doesn't know whether his son is alive or dead), but long-time readers of the Alex Hawke novels will be accustomed to these yawning voids where competent character-building or even simple empathy should be. It's true that the story would feel cleaner, more sleekly enjoyable, if we weren't periodically reminded that it has no human beings in it, but genre fans won't be distracted: this is a Hawke-vs-Putin novel (with a little Hitler thrown in, as per union rules), a manhunt novel, a getting-the-crew-back-together novel, a stop-at-nothing novel, an exact DNA replica of every Alex Hawke novel before it, complete with brand names and exotic locations and ripped-from-the-headlines politics and action sequences in almost every chapter.
It couldn't be more efficiently or effectively done. Bell has long since worked out the modern thriller-formula to its last decimal point, and he makes not the smallest misstep in these pages. Worrywarts might wonder what even this inventive author could possibly come up with to top Putin parachuting into Provence bent on Napoleon-style world conquest, but fans won't have any doubts. This author always delivers what those fans like, for good or ill.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com