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It’s a Mystery: “Every man has his price”

Red Star Burning

By Brian Freemantle
St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, 2012

House Blood

By Mike Lawson
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012

Red Star Burning is the fifteenth in Brian Freemantle’s Charlie Muffin series. Charlie is an agent with the British Secret Service. In dress and demeanor, he’s the Lt. Columbo of the Service. His clothes are always wrinkled, even when he puts them on newly pressed. He’s very good at what he does but he doesn’t look or act like he is. He’s the unkempt underdog that no one takes seriously—until it is too late. He’s a public school product of the middle class who just happens to be better at the spy game than all the privately schooled superiors he is forced to work under. He is insolent, quick to take umbrage, loves to drink and often suffers the ravages of too much imbibing. Always under-appreciated and underestimated, he remains without a doubt the best man the British Secret Service has ever had.

Charlie Muffin was introduced in 1977 in Charlie M as “a new kind of spy.” He was also described as “a worn out bugger of 41,” but like certain legendary actresses, world class detectives and invincible secret agents, let’s call him ageless. And, as his latest adventure Red Star Burning bears out, he has endured masterfully but always with a price.

It begins with Charlie back in London, after a harrowing mission to Russia (Red Star Rising, 2010). He is under the microscope, as it were, of Britain’s counter-espionage services MI5 and MI6. They are watching his every move. It is the delicious ‘Muffin’s mantra’ that as the matchless maverick he is never trusted by his superiors. This time, Charlie’s stakes in the bureaucratic killing fields of the spy game are very personal. His secret marriage to Natalia Federova, a colonel in the FSB (formerly the KGB), and the existence of their daughter Sasha is about to be revealed. With Natalia on the verge of being outed, Charlie is forced to conceive of a plan for getting his family out of Russia.

Charlie is rarely naïve, but this time he foolishly thinks that his bosses will help in the family’s escape. After all, Natalia’s vast knowledge of her country’s secrets should make her defection quite a coup. But the higher-ups, led by the unctuous Gerald Monsford, have other plans. They want to use Charlie as bait, hook, line and sinker, to distract the Russians while they orchestrate the defection of an even bigger fish. He is Maxim Radtsic, and he is one notch below the top of the Russian hierarchy. (He knows where all the bodies are buried). Charlie barely gets wind of all this in time for his survival instincts to kick in.

He’d screwed up big time, Charlie acknowledged. How big he didn’t yet know, nor how to find out: whether, even, if he would…. How, in his eagerness to reassure Natalia that he was still alive—could he have failed to consider the possible misunderstandings! …However they chose to destroy him would publicly expose how close Russian intelligence had come to insinuating itself into the very heart of the Oval Office in Washington, D.C., with an equally gullible, puppy dog Britain led unsuspectingly by the nose to the same disaster.

He wasn’t simply caught between a rock and a hard place, Charlie accepted. He was trapped beneath a collapsing mountain range: if one avalanche didn’t sweep him away, another one would…. Which was preposterous and unthinkable: he’d never capitulated to anything or anyone and he didn’t intend rolling onto his back and spreading his legs in submission now…

Charlie’s path takes some bizarre twists and turns that lead to one hell of a cliffhanger finale. But those of us who know Charlie can be sure he’ll come through again, and probably at the cost of those who counted him out. After all, the way Charlie’s pulls off his feats of victory are always as unpredictable as they are, in their own way, logical. Red Star Burning is a stunning thriller in the grand tradition. Charlie is clever, capricious, and captivating.

One of the secret giants of crime fiction in America was for many years, Ross Thomas. “Secret” because, as thriller writers of his caliber go, although he won two Edgars and critical acclaim, he never “broke out” and made the bestseller lists as he should have. The master of the political thriller, as he was often dubbed, has a smooth, sophisticated prose style, aptly described by one Washington Post Book World critic as “witty, sharp, colloquial, wry, able to modulate easily from repartee to description to gun-blazing action.” These qualities in his prose led none other than Stephen King to label Thomas “the Jane Austen of the political espionage story.”

Thomas won his first Edgar for his debut novel, The Cold War Swap (1966) and the second for Briarpatch in 1985. By the time of his death in 1995 he had written twenty-five novels. They are all quite wonderful, wear well and can be reread often and with pleasure. One of my very favorites is The Fools in Town Are on Our Side (1971). Ross Thomas is relevant here, because his current heir apparent, hands down among thriller buffs, is Mike Lawson.

House Blood, the seventh in Lawson’s celebrated series, is as good as it gets. Orson Mulray, CEO of Mulray Pharma, is a cold calculating man obsessed with profit and prestige. His father Clayton, founder of what was at the time of his death in 2006, the twelfth largest pharmaceutical company in the world, wanted a legacy. In his final years, he concentrated on cost-effective drugs for third world countries. Orson thoroughly disapproved and since the old man’s death has concentrated on developing one drug.

He believes it could be a breakthrough treatment for Alzheimer’s and thus a salvation for millions of people. More to his point, its success will make him billions of dollars. But the drug needs to be tested on human subjects and Mulray needs more than blood samples—he needs autopsy results. Orson knows that clinical trials in the U.S. might take two decades because of FDA regulations. So he authorizes Fiona, his chief in-house legal counsel, and sometime mistress to circumvent the FDA:

To execute his plan, Orson needed someone to help him…a partner that was at least one step removed from the crimes he planned to commit so that in the unlikely event those crimes ever came to light, there would be someone to blame. In Fiona West, he’d found the person he needed….Fiona was bright, determined, relentless and ruthless…She was extremely paranoid, childishly vindictive, and absolutely vicious when she didn’t get her way. Orson suspected she was some variety of sociopath…this wasn’t a bad thing. She was his sociopath…. They didn’t have a written contract, however, Orson knew that if he reneged on his part of the deal it was likely she’d have him killed.

Through his R&D division, Orson recruits a scientist with a unique approach to developing the drug and curing the disease, Dr. Simon Ballard. He has the personality of a fence post and no communications skills. But give him a lab and the promise of a certain prize for medicine and Orson owns him, no questions asked. Fiona, armed with a boatload of cash, enlists the aid of a handsome French doctor with money problems, and a disgraced army colonel and logistics wizard. Last, but certainly not least, she recruits Kelly and Nelson, two former members of the Delta Force, the Department of Defense’s covert-action response team, the most effective killers the army has. Fiona calls them Security Specialists; it sounded better than killers.

Mulray infiltrates this motley crew into an international disaster-relief agency run by a naïve philanthropist, Lizzie Warwick. Her Foundation provides whatever is needed to third world victims of wars and natural disasters. Her access to countries where clinical trials could be conducted without scrutiny, plus her amateur reliance on unskilled, but dedicated volunteers like herself, makes her Mulray’s ideal tool—until her D.C. lobbyist, Phil Downing (seems lobbyists are a Washington prerequisite even for the likes of Lizzie Warwick), uncovers Mulray’s plan. Mulray has Kelly and Nelson kill him and frame his partner Brian Kincaid for the murder.

Enter, Joe DeMarco, the hotshot troubleshooter for the Speaker of the House, John Fitzpatrick Mahoney. He’s the guy who gets sent out on “odd” jobs that require secrecy and political savvy. He looks tougher than he really is. A friend once said DeMarco looked like the guy you’d see on The Sopranos standing behind Tony while Tony hit someone with a bat. DeMarco hadn’t thought that funny:

When he’d graduated from law school, his father had just been killed—and his father, according to large-font headlines had been a hit man for the mob…. Young DeMarco quickly discovered that most respectable law firms had no desire to employ a lawyer with relatives in the Mafia…. Then DeMarco got lucky—or at least, at the time he thought it was luck. One of his aunts had worked in D.C. when she was young and, like many other young women, she’d had an affair with John Mahoney. When she heard about her favorite nephew’s employment problems, she convinced—or maybe blackmailed—Mahoney to give him a job. …He stuck DeMarco in a closet-sized office in the subbasement of the Capitol and then introduced him to the rank underbelly of American politics.

It’s two years after Kincaid had been framed and jailed. He’s just lost his appeal of the verdict. Mahoney is putting Joe on the Kincaid case. Mahoney is an alcoholic, a serial adulterer yet deeply in love with his wife of forty years; he’s somewhat shady, has some good traits and more than a few bad ones; he loves life and the American people and is the best friend the common man had on Capitol Hill. He’s still very much in the game, and has the President’s ear, despite the fact that he lost his job as Speaker the year before when the Republicans took control of the House. Instead of going quietly, he bullied the Democrats into making him minority leader. And the Kincaid case is meaningful because Mahoney’s wife Mary Pat and Kincaid’s mother are old friends.

“Kincaid, of course claims he’s innocent,” Mahoney said….” So his mother came over to the house the other day bawling her eyes out…. Mary Pat explained that I can’t overturn a verdict in a criminal case, but she said that she knew a guy who could do some investigating on her son’s behalf, free of charge. Meaning you.”

“But what in hell am I supposed to do?” DeMarco whined.

“I don’t know and I don’t care.” Mahoney responded. “All I want is Mary Pat off my back. Go see Kincaid, spend a few days dinking around, then call his mom and tell her that in spite of your herculean efforts, her son’s gonna spend the rest of his life making license plates—or whatever the hell they make in prison these days.”

And that, of course, is just the beginning. Joe quickly uncovers the fact that Kincaid is a minor player in Mulray’s nefarious grand scheme. As always, he enlists Emma, who has been with him since his debut, The Inside Ring (2005). Emma is gorgeous, fearless, gay with a daughter, and is an ex-spy who is retired from the Defense Intelligence Agency. Joe suspects she’s still involved but with Emma you don’t ask too many questions. They have no expectation of freeing Kincaid but they are soon very much on Mulray’s case. This makes them the target of Kelly and Nelson—something you never want to be.

As with Ross Thomas, character creation is one of Lawson’s strong suits. Joe et al will rivet your attention as will a host of engaging lesser players. House Blood is a rollicking ride to Uganda, Peru and beyond. It’s a potent combination of high good humor, crackling prose, and insider smarts. Lawson expertly commands Washington politics, mercenaries and the pharmaceutical industry for a memorable, juicy yarn.

____
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.

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