By Mark Greaney
Two seemingly unconnected but roughly simultaneous events kick off the bountiful, non-stop action in Mark Greaney’s new “Gray Man” novel, Mission Critical. At a mostly-unused air base at Ternhill in England’s West Midlands, a transfer is taking place: CIA agents are handing off a hooded prisoner named Dirk Visser to their British counterparts. And at the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF), somebody has printed out a profile package of long-dead General Feodor Ivanovich Zakharov, former head of the GRU.
But nothing is ever really unconnected in a Gray Man novel. The prisoner handoff falls to pieces when a team of operatives attacks to abduct Visser, and a separate team of gunmen, apparently set in motion by the downloading of the Zakharov file, attack a CIA safe house in Virginia intent on killing everybody inside.
Much bloodshed ensues, but there are two crucial exceptions: the special “guest” in the safe house, Zoya Zakharov (the general’s daughter), is more than a match for the gunmen, and there’s a survivor of the Ternhill attack as well: a lone CIA contractor named Court Gentry, once hunted by the agency under the name Gray Man, now leased by them on a wary basis, code-name Violator. The SCIF file-printout was done with the login of Suzanne Brewer, Gentry’s CIA handler, although his far more immediate concern is figuring out who the operatives were who killed his plane’s crew and made off with Visser. With the kind of direct tenacity fans of this terrific series have come to expect, Gentry immediately decides to go after that mystery team, although he’s briefly stopped by an air strip mechanic in a typically tense exchange:
“I’ve been warned that when you CIA boys land your jets here I need to stay the hell away. Guess I now know why.”
Court knew if the locals were aware the CIA was doing handoffs here, then it stood to reason that some bad actors could find out the same information.
It was quiet an instant, and then Court said, “The bad guys are getting away, and the good guys are bleeding to death.”
A nod from the mechanic. “Tail number forty-three. Third from the end. I’ve got the keys on me, I just refueled it.”
As skilled as Greaney is at orchestrating the action sequences that fill his novels, it’s this ear for quippy dialogue (“The bad guys are getting away, and the good guys are bleeding to death”) that always provides the grace notes of a Gray Man novel. The omnipresent gunplay and martial arts mayhem might be as operatically overblown here as it is in most other action-thrillers, but Greaney’s characters never sound like characters; they come well-stocked with memorable turns of phrase, they stay wary of everything, and they brim with tetch, even the shadowy characters we see pulling the strings at the novel’s beginning:
“I can’t wait another five days! Every time the door to my office opens, I expect it to be counterintel. Every time I see headlights behind me I think I’m getting tailed by the FBI. Every since glance I get from a colleague here at the Agency makes me think the walls are closing in. I have to run!”
Mars’s voice lowered an octave. “Watch your tone with me, old boy.”
“Yes … of course. Sorry, it’s just that -”
“The only safe way to extract you will happen next week, here in London Just keep your bloody wits about you for a few days and you’ll be safe and set.”
The two plot-lines that explode into motion in the novel’s opening pages will of course be revealed to have deep and byzantine connections, and fans who’ve been keeping up with the Gray Man novels will already know a surface connection: Gentry and Zoya have already met and might be on the road to falling in love. Greaney twines the two plots together with a clockwork niceness that never feels artificial, building suspense around the question of whether two such operatives, so formidable individually, might be unbeatable once they’re finally fighting together.
This is the eight book in the Gray Man series, but this author is by now an old and tested professional, well-seasoned at bringing new readers up to speed quickly and invisibly. Each book is an equally comfortable place to start the series, and fans of the action-thriller genre who’ve somehow missed Mark Greaney’s books can settle down and begin enjoying themselves right here.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, 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.