Book Review: Gunmetal Gray
by Mark Greaney
It’s only the dead momentum time-lag of the general/airport book-buying crowd that continues to crown the late Tom Clancy king of the techno-thrillers; like so many best-selling authors of two decades ago, Clancy’s sales dominance has been extended by a ghastly line of necro-pastiches – it’s entirely possible that a sizeable chunk of his readership in 2017 has no idea he actually died in 2013. And why would they, when new Tom Clancy doorstops appear in bookstores on a regular basis?
The irony is that the man responsible for those new posthumous Tom Clancy novels is the genuine king of the techno-thrillers: Mark Greaney, who’s been the dead man’s amanuensis for several books and tells a better, faster-paced, more immediately gripping techno-thriller story than the old master ever did. He demonstrates this in his “Tom Clancy” novels, but the discriminating techno-reader will notice right away a difference of tone and pacing in Greaney’s own original series of novels featuring the “Gray Man,” which he’s been writing since 2009.
The “Gray Man” is Courtland Gentry, a top CIA covert operative who, years ago, suddenly found himself on the agency’s “burn list,” persona non grata with extreme prejudice, a target for every other operative in the field. He’s forced to strike out on his own as a kind of freelance badass, and most of the “Gray Man” novels operate on that trusty thriller fuel of the man-on-the-run. Each book in the series has been more addictively readable than the one before it, and the arc of the larger story has gradually brought Gentry back into the tricky embrace of the CIA, which is where we find him at the beginning of Greaney’s slam-bang terrific latest novel, Gunmetal Gray.
The plot hinges on the disappearance of the most dangerous hacker in the world from the custody of the Chinese state. Gentry is in Hong Kong to investigate, and he’s hardly off the plane before he’s being tailed by Chinese secret service operatives – early on in the novel, there’s a scene in a swanky hotel room where Gentry confronts the two, decides the only way to preserve his mission is to kill them, kills them, cleans up, and gets on with the book’s plot, and the mind boggles both at the nightmarish thought of the meatloaf hash Clancy would have made of such a scene and also at the sheer adhesive ease with which Greaney pulls it off.
And our author makes a point of reminding readers on a regular basis that being the Gray Man isn’t all daisies and daiquiris:
Being the Gray Man didn’t mean being in control at all times. Sometimes it meant relinquishing all control, playing the game, and dealing with fucking bullshit lie some asshole standing on the back of your head.
Court told himself not to worry; he’d figure out his situation soon enough, and then he would adapt and overcome. In the meantime, he closed his eyes and did his best to enjoy the ride.
In the course of his investigations, Gentry comes across his former boss British ex-spymaster Donald Fitzroy, who’s likewise been tasked with finding that missing super-hacker and is now under the gun to deliver the young man to the Chinese – a situation that gets him very little sympathy from the Gray Man:
Court didn’t bat an eyelash. Instead, he said, “You took a contract from Chinese intelligence to assassinate someone. An organization that imposes its will with an iron fist. An organization that puts its own citizens in front of a firing squad for saying the wrong thing in public. You failed your mission for them, and now they are holding you personally responsible.” Sarcastically Court added, “How could you possibly have guessed your employers would be such a bunch of dickheads?”
“You are an old , sour prick, Fitz.”
“And you are a young, sour prick who won’t make it to old age.”
The one piece of trouble in Gunmetal Gray is the same piece of trouble in the rest of the “Gray Man” series, and it was the same trouble that plagued Tom Clancy’s novels in his prime, and it’s the same trouble that plagues almost all techno-thrillers: when it comes to the main character, Fitzroy is right – readers are always dealing with young, sour pricks.
Luckily, thanks to Greaney’s peppy presentation, it’s easy to let the hurtling plot of Gunmetal Gray carry you along as the book’s densely-packed cyber warfare plot unfolds and the Gray Man confronts a hilariously-realized femme fatale who may be the best character Greaney has ever created. It’s a bubbling, brimming stew of an action-thriller – by the new king of this particular hill.
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