I was lucky enough to be able to read an advance copy, through Netgalley.com, of this thriller by American author Robert K. Tanenbaum, due for publication on August 12. And I was really hoping to like it. A lot.
It seemed promising. The CIA, covert ops, Chechen rebels, drone attacks, clandestine affairs, grisly murder, skullduggery, cover ups and court room drama.What’s not to love as stories go?
Unfortunately the book has a number of problems.
Tanenbaum, a former Assistant Attorney General of New York county, wears his conservative politics on his sleeve. Barely a page passes without some sideswipe at President Obama, the Democrats, administration officials, government in general, and the US news media. The Comedy Channel and Jon Stewart (not named but you don’t need the forensic skills of say a former Deputy Attorney General to figure it out) come in for some particularly harsh and unfair criticism.
Beyond the distorted looking-glass world of Tanenbaum’s skewed view, even those who strenuously disagree with Stewart and his politics acknowledge his ability – and his effectiveness. Not liking the angle he takes and the fact that he does what he does well is no excuse for petty attacks in print intended to be a work of fiction.
The tide of real world points scoring and recrimination is relentless and frustrating. Indeed the reader begins to wonder why Tanenbaum didn’t just write a political screed instead and concentrate on telling the story in this book.
Perhaps for certain sections of the US market the rather snide asides and continuous flow of carping cynical criticism against everything American except apple pie, guns and Republicans will actually be a selling point but on this side of the Atlantic, and on this island in particular where the Barack Obama Plaza has just been completed, the book and its main protagonist Butch Karp will be a fish out of water.
This explains why Tanenbaum has achieved significant sales in the US but remains largely unknown in Europe. Paradoxically his success in America presents a problem for would-be non-US readers. Fatal Conceit is just the latest in a long line of works in a series stretching to over 25 books featuring the same characters: Butch Karp, his wife Marlene, their daughter Lucy, and twin sons.
Much of the plot in this book inevitably refers back to early happenings in its companion volumes, and indeed many of the secondary characters have featured in previous outings. For the non-aficionado this makes life difficult, and Tanenbaum has tried to overcome the hurdle with extensive backstory exposition. In doing this he ends up falling between two stools, with not enough detail for new unfamiliar readers but a clunky clogged text.
Structurally, the story also has other problems. The plot unfolds in a convoluted timeline, full of flashbacks and timeshifts between chapters, with some overlapping in later sections. Action takes place in three main locations, Chechnya with special ops, New York among the administration and cops and finally in the court room. Trying to maintain a sense of suspense and stretch the narrative to encompass all the parts – an uneasy combination of Tom Clancy action set-pieces and John Grisham legal drama – is a struggle requiring the bolting together of what would much more comfortably be two separate books.
All in all I found it a disappointing read but then again I’m not the target audience. For those who read and liked the previous 25 books – and obviously any author, even with credited ghostwriters, who has produced that amount of books is doing something right for a large number of people – this will be I suspect a good experience, a return to familiar characters picking up where they left off, a continuation of previous enjoyment. Which in its way is its own success I suppose.