Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The American Mission

I am a voracious reader, and though I am quite critical, I am also a bit undiscerning in that I am happy to read a fair amount of junk, as long as it's entertaining junk.  In fact, I often need a break from the "good" reading that I feel I should do (important novels, history and nonfiction of places I should learn more about, etc.).  I obtain such a break through either trashy thriller/spy novels (what I call airport novels, a la Dan Brown), or increasingly from British period pieces like Somerset Maugham or GK Chesterton.  John LeCarre is the perfect combination of these, and actually a highbrow novelist to boot, but I've unfortunately run through all his novels, except for his latest, which I'm saving for a rainy day.

In this vein, I just devoured a book called The American Mission, by Matthew Palmer.  He is perhaps the only writer working in the Foreign Service Officer thriller genre, meaning that his heroes are diplomat-bureaucrats in the United States Foreign Service.  I know quite a few Foreign Service Officers, and much of what Palmer writes rings true to their descriptions of work and life.  Anyway, the book was great, a nail-biter but well-informed.  It takes place across a number of places I'm very interested in--Sudan, Guinea, and the DRC.  I was also pleasantly surprised at his normal, human treatment of African people.  Most of the characters in the novel are African, both heroes and villains, and they are complex, talking, thinking, critical, conflicted human beings.  They aren't just savage warlords, or noble innocents, or deprived waifs.  This nuanced characterization is a rarity in thrillers written by non-Africans.

Don't get me wrong, this is still a trashy novel, it's just that it's a good trashy novel.  Where Le Carre can offhandedly mention a small detail like the cut of someone's clothes or an affected accent, and with this detail convey a whole series of things about a person's social class, upbringing, values, who they are and who they want to be, Palmer has lines like, 'He wore stylish tortoiseshell glasses that gave him a vaguely professorial air."  Palmer tells you, he doesn't just show you, but he's still a cut above a lot of thriller writers, who wouldn't even mention the tortoiseshell glasses, or might just blurt out that someone looks like a professor.  With reason the bevy of thriller novel writers cited on the cover give glowing praise to Palmer's book, though a Dan Brown knockoff's quip that "Mr. Palmer is far better than John Le Carre," is certainly stretching it.  Anyway, I highly recommend The American Mission.

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