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Rage Against the Dying

Rage Against the Dying

By Becky Masterman
Minotaur, 2013

Ice Cold Kill

By Dana Haynes
Minotaur, 2013

Brigid Quinn, aka Stinger, is a former undercover FBI agent whose old job hunting sexual predators has left her with horrific memories that still haunt her. “I’ve sometimes regretted the women I’ve been,”

There have been so many: daughter, sister, cop, tough broad, several kinds of whore, jilted lover, ideal wife, heroine, killer…Keeping secrets, telling lies, they require the same skill. Both become a habit, almost an addiction, that’s hard to break even with the people closest to you, out of the business. For example, they say never trust a woman who tells you her age; if she can’t keep that secret, she can’t keep yours.

I’m fifty nine.

Thus does Brigid Quinn introduce herself in this first-rate debut thriller, Rage Against the Dying. Actually, we meet her in a fairly creepy prologue involving a young predator on the prowl designed to show what a tough broad we’re dealing with. But she is so much more than the sum of that opening encounter.

For one thing, when she joined the FBI there were very few female special agents. And she made quite a name for herself tracking down serial killers in the course of a long, legendary, often controversial Bureau career. Now, she’s retired, not happily, newly married, happily, and living in a suburb of Tucson, Arizona. Before he became a philosophy professor, her husband, Carlo DiForenza, had done time (Brigid’s description) as a Roman Catholic priest. She calls him Perfesser and he calls her O’Hari because she’s Irish and has a mysterious past. A past she intends to keep from him no matter what. Until it comes rushing headlong into her new life in the form of the one killer who eluded her for thirteen years.

Because of a series of bizarre coincidences, the authorities have arrested trucker Floyd Lynch, who now claims to be the Route 66 killer— so called because the victims, girls ages eighteen to twenty-three, were left naked in degrading positions along or off State Road 40, what used to be called Route 66. It was the biggest sexual homicide case in Brigid’s career and the one case she failed to close. Disastrously, the last victim was her protégée, rookie undercover agent Jessica Robertson, whose body was never found. Now seven years later Floyd Lynch wants to use her body as a bargaining chip to get out of the death penalty:

On top of the bad back that put me out of commission for the undercover game, I was now too old to make a convincing hitchhiker. But Jessica, fresh out of the academy, small like me, could pass for a fourteen-year-old runaway. I trained her myself. Weiss and I trained her. Between us she learned both how to tell a scumbag and defend herself against one. That summer I convinced myself she was ready to play with the bad dogs. Or was she? Did I just want to catch the guy too much…? Floyd Lynch…. The life Jessica Robertson lost, this scumbag gained in trade; she would have hated that, and so did I.

Floyd’s capture brings a young FBI agent, Laura Coleman, into the case. Brigid is now involved up to her eyeballs—wild horses, etc. To Laura and Brigid things seem off kilter. Laura thinks the confession is false; Brigid is certainly leaning in that direction. Then Laura disappears. Brigid goes into high gear to find her. Along the way, she is stalked. The hunter becomes the hunted! She is forced into taking crazy risks:

Lynch is captured and makes his confession…. Coleman is suspicious of it…. Coleman goes missing—who else did Coleman tell besides me? …Who would want to stop us and why? Who was Lynch protecting? If he didn’t commit the Route 66 murders, whoever did had Coleman. …Regret can be a great motivator. I wouldn’t fail to save Coleman.

First-time novelist Masterman adroitly ratchets up the suspense and gives us a stunning conclusion. Among the myriad revelations: the pivotal clue was hidden in plain sight. I say bravo.

Not since Clarice Starling, the young FBI trainee in Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs (1988), have readers been introduced to as charismatic an agent as Brigid. She’s seasoned, sinewy and skilled. She is also surrounded by a host of engaging characters. There is Deputy Sheriff Max Coyote, half Pascua Yaqui tribe and half Columbia University anthropologist on his mother’s side. Max is as wily (forgive me) as they come and he suffers ex-FBI agents gladly. Then there is David Weiss, the Washington Bureau profiler extraordinaire. Brigid calls him Sigmund; he was the one who nicknamed her Stinger. They are two of the most endearing players in Rage Against the Dying’s stellar cast. I would kill to see more of Brigid Quinn, et al, but I suspect I won’t have to.

ice cold killDaria Gibron, the indomitable protagonist in Ice Cold Kill, by Dana Haynes, is a very different FBI operative from Brigid Quinn. You might call her an ad hoc Bureau person. Still I suspect that although they are generations apart—Daria is in her early thirties—they would bond.

Daria was featured in Crashers (2010) and Breaking Point (2011), the first two top-notch technothrillers by Haynes. While she is not the central character in either one, when she appears she’s a force majeure. In each she is influential in the FBI investigation of major airline disasters. Crashers involved international espionage wherein Daria foiled a plot by Northern Irish Terrorists. Breaking Point sent her up against corporate malfeasance and a particularly nasty piece of work known only as Calendar. Not for nothing was she dubbed “a hand grenade in high heels.”

Now, in Ice Cold Kill, she is definitely center stage. It begins with the CIA honing in on her. They’ve put a big R on her back for “rogue” agent in league with Major Khalid Belhadj of Syria’s inner circle. Together, they are supposedly hatching a plot to assassinate the President of the United States. Daria’s background is being laid out in a highly calculated fashion in an emergency briefing at CIA headquarters. This because ‘’the intelligence is considered pristine and only a couple of hours old”:

Daria Gibron. Adopted by a Lebanese father and an Israeli mother. Raised in Tel Aviv. Did her required service in the Israeli Army but reupped, did two tours before being recruited by Shin Bet . She served for almost three years as an undercover agent in Beirut, Jordan, Syria, infiltrating Fatah and later, Hamas…. Four years ago, Gibron caught rumors of a project by a Mossad splinter cell to kill a liberal member of the Israeli parliament, or Knesset…. Gibron didn’t know who to trust. An FBI resource team was in Tel Aviv at the time…. She turned to them…. They intervened and stopped the assassination. During the melee, Gibron got herself gut-shot. The lead FBI adviser Ray Calabrese, took the initiative to have her airlifted to Ramstein Air Base…there were two attempts on her life at the base. Both failed…. Calabrese was officially posted in the L.A. field office, so Gibron was set up there…. She has been an asset for the FBI, the ATF and the DEA.

She also has a bureau-created business as an international translator. It gets her unlimited access to a lot of powerful people.

Belhadj’s background is shorter but to the point:

Major Khalid Belhadj. Fifteen-year veteran of the Mukhabarat, or Syrian Military Intelligence Directorate…. Belhadj was part of the old guard. But he served Kid Assad just like the old man. He’s Teheran’s guy too…. Belhadj is black ops, an assassin as much as a spy.

In other words, he is very high up on the terrorist watch list. So armed with what they are sure is the meeting place for Daria and Belhadj, each lured by sophisticated ruses, the CIA mounts a full scale attack, Operation Pegasus, in broad daylight in midtown Manhattan. But Daria has twelve senses, knows she’s been compromised and quickly wreaks havoc, which very effectively humiliates the CIA command, its ground forces and rooftop snipers. (To reveal how would be criminal.) Conclusion: “Operation Pegasus went to hell in a rocket ship.”

Belhadj, who also recognizes a trap, manages to remain hidden, watching the pandemonium from across the street and a block away:

He thought: Daria Gibron. He had no idea what had just happened but he felt certain, to the depths of his soul, that no living person could foul up the works as quickly and cleanly as that hellspawn.

By the time the dust has settled, Daria has stolen the armored command vehicle out from under the spectacularly incompetent CIA noses. She finds a file that reveals just how completely her American alliances have been destroyed. Just as shocking is the fact that she is apparently teamed up with the notorious Belhadj, whom she knows only by reputation and a dozen PowerPoint presentations. One thing is crystal clear: the CIA is sanctioned to capture or kill them both. She needs a plan and fast. She winds up at an abandoned construction site in New Jersey. Armed with a new cell phone, its CIA tracking chips removed, and enough weaponry (from a copious array of world class choices) to start—and finish—a firefight, she runs away from the truck and into Khalid Belhadj, who has a Springfield Auto pointed at her clavicle.

Believe it or not, it’s the beginning of a beautiful, albeit slightly uneasy, friendship. They wind up in an old warehouse in Paris, playing more than cat and mouse. Belhadj is tracking Asher Sahar, a man she has known since she was a child, an ex-tunnel rat who was her protector, her oldest friend and then her enemy. Apparently, according to Belhadj, Sahar, the former Mossad agent, “convicted in a star chamber of high crimes” and locked away in a secret prison, was free. Worse, Sahar has assembled many members of his old covert unit plus mercenaries. The question is why?

“Say you had money and power enough to get Asher Sahar out of prison. Quietly. Why would you?” he asks Daria.

“Not for an intelligence mission,” she said….”You free an Asher Sahar for destruction. You free him for something big and awful. The man may be brilliant but he is also a Sociopath. You free Asher if you plan to make horrifying headlines.”

“Yes.” He seemed to mull the information. Thank you. That was my assessment as well. But you know him better than I.”

What Daria also knows is that if Asher is the mastermind behind her fall from grace, she is being used as a distraction from a terrorist conspiracy that is nowhere near the CIA’s radar. The search for answers keeps them on a hellish path of constant danger. It all comes together in a heart-stopping finale in Milan’s Cathedral.

Haynes pulls out all the stops with an array of weighty themes (Arab Spring, biological weapons, juvenile soldiers, child hostages, and secret societies) that are woven together into a strong, Byzantine, terrifyingly believable tale. As for Daria, she’s right up there with Brigid Quinn among the best in the growing roster of female thriller leads. Lisbeth Salander comes to mind because she was such an original. So is Daria, who is as complicated as she is charming and unforgettable.

____
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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