Whatever the facts of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case may turn out to be, it is instructive in how the media narrative works. Many reporters and pundits are ignoring the forest of reality while waiting to climb the one tree and go out on a limb assuming a local crime story reinforces their world view.
So it comes as a bit of a surprise that three of today’s best suspense novelists — writers who stand firm against the media narrative of crazy killer veterans, reflexively racist cops and imperialist CIA oppressors — are prize-winning journalists from the liberal troika of the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and, yes, the New York Times.
It will surprise no thriller fan that Stephen Hunter is less than politically correct. For more than 20 years and through 17 novels, Hunter has tweaked media narratives and refuted their clichés about guns and the men who use them. His most famous novels, which feature former Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger, celebrate the small-town American fighting man who fights his country’s wars and has contempt for the elites who underestimate him.
In his last Swagger book, I, Sniper, Hunter showed he was fed up with the industry that awarded him a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism as a writer for the Washington Post. In what could be seen as a one-paragraph summary of Thomas Sowell’s The Vision of the Anointed, Hunter put these words in the mouth of a frustrated FBI agent:
The narrative is the set of assumptions the press believes in, possibly without even knowing that it believes in them. It’s so powerful because it’s unconscious. It’s not like they get together every morning and decide “these are the lies we tell today.” No, that would be too crude and honest. Rather, it’s a set of casual non-rigorous assumptions about a reality they’ve never really experienced that’s arranged in such a way as to reinforce their best and most ideal presumptions about themselves and their importance to the system and the way they’ve chosen to live their lives. It’s their way of arranging things a certain way what they all believe in without ever really addressing it carefully. It permeates their whole culture. They know, for example, that Bush is a moron and Obama a saint. They know Communism was a phony threat cooked up by right-wing cranks as a way to leverage power to the executive. They know Saddam didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, the response to Katrina was f—ed up, torture never works. … Cheney’s a devil, Biden’s a genius. …The story [the central frame up in I, Sniper] was somewhat suspiciously concocted exactly to their prejudices, just as Jayson Blair’s made-up stories and Dan Rather’s Air National Guard documents were. And the narrative is the bedrock of their culture, the keystone of their faith, the altar of their church. They don’t even know they’re true believers, because in theory they despise the true believer in anything. But they will absolutely de-frackin-stroy anybody who makes them question all that.
This was written too early to add: “And innocent Trayvon Martin was executed for Walking While Black to buy Skittles by a racist white Hispanic who listens to Rush Limbaugh.”
Hunter’s latest, Soft Target (Simon and Schuster, $26.99), makes the rant above seem subtle. On the surface it updates Die Hard with the setting in the Mall of America. A Marine sniper is trapped with 1,000 customers on Black Friday by a team of jihadists calling itself the Mumbai Brigade.
That’s on the surface. At its core, Soft Target is a withering media and political satire that takes fewer prisoners than its hero, Ray Cruz, son of Swagger.
You see, the man in charge of the response to the terror attack is Colonel Douglas Obobo of the Minnesota State Police, whom Hunter describes as a charismatic media darling being pushed to be the first black director of the FBI. Hunter goes on to add he “hadn’t really done anything. His career was primarily a phenomenon of showing up, giving speeches, accepting awards, then moving up to the next level.”
Obobo scoffs that terrorism is the motive for the raid, opining that “other than a few Arabic-styled scarves, there is no evidence for that.” He goes for negotiations rather than confrontation, while the jihadists — spurred on by a local radical imam who is good at pleading persecution whenever someone objects to his sermons — plan to go out in a blaze of glory, taking their hostages with them,.
Ultimately, of course, it turns out it is the terrorists who are trapped in the Mall with Ray Cruz. Soft Target is shorter and more obvious than the average Hunter book, but it’s great fun, fueled by Hunter’s knowledge of weapons and tactics — and his newly revealed sense of outrage.
Besides, who can resist a thriller where the department store Santa gets sniped by a Muslim terrorist on page one?
Michael Connelly was a prize-winning police reporter — first in Miami, then for the Los Angeles Time — before becoming the best writer of police procedurals (and assorted other crime novels) of his generation. Like a war correspondent embedded with a combat unit, Connelly became immersed in the blue culture and writes with an authentic voice that comes up just short of the great Joseph Wambaugh.
Connelly is far more subtle than Hunter in refuting the dominant media narrative, but Angel’s Flight — Connelly’s post-Rodney King LAPD novel featuring his signature protagonist, Detective Harry Bosch — stood in stark contrast to the media and pop culture piling-on that followed the riot, while dealing honestly with issues of race and police work.
In his latest book, The Drop (Little, Brown, $27.99), Connelly has Bosch put the lie to the media myth that the choke hold was just Daryl Gates’ way to have white cops kill black people.
The statistics matched up across racial and geographic lines. Sure, there were more choke hold deaths in the south end. Far more African Americans died than other races. But the ratios were even. There were far more incidents involving use of force in the south end. The more confrontations, scuffles, fights, resisting arrests you get, the more uses of the choke hold. The more you use the choke hold, the more deaths you will have. It was simple math. But nothing is simple when racial politics are involved. …
The task force recommended that the bar hold be dropped from the use-of-force progression and it was. Funny thing is, the department then told officers to rely more on their batons—in fact, you could be disciplined if you got out of a patrol car without carrying your baton in your hand or on your belt. Added to that, Tasers were coming into use just as the choke hold went out. And what did we get? Rodney King. A video that changed the world. A video of a guy being Tased and whaled on with batons when a proper choke hold would’ve just put him to sleep.
The politics that play out in The Drop are more of the inside LAPD variety as Harry contemplates being forced into retirement while investigating the death of the son of his long-time nemesis, who is now a city councilman.
The Drop is exactly what we have come to expect from Connelly — excellence so consistent that it’s almost a matter of routine. Fifty years from now, readers will regard Michael Connelly the way we now view Raymond Chandler.
The Shadow Patrol by Alex Berenson
There is simply no better series of thrillers set in the context of the post-9/11 world than the John Wells novels written by New York Times correspondent Alex Berenson — and, yes, I am a Vince Flynn fan.
Berenson’s terrific series started with The Faithful Spy in which deep cover CIA agent John Wells, who had converted to Islam while infiltrating al-Qaeda, tries to stop a bio-terror attack on the U.S., while his superiors can’t decide whether to trust him because he failed to warn them in time about 9/11.
As the series goes on, Wells becomes a little less “faithful” and a lot more cynical about the American intelligence bureaucracy. But he never loses sight of one core belief: “The world would be a poorer place if the American dream died.”
Wells has saved America from nuclear attack, foiled a biological disaster, averted a war with the Chinese, and even infiltrated Mecca itself to stop radicals from toppling the Saudi regime and establishing (even more) of a terrorist base.
Berenson’s books are as literate as those by Len Deighton or Charles McCarry (yes, the cliché would be to say John LeCarre, but I find him insufferable and pretentious), but he’s also as wildly entertaining as Vince Flynn or Ted Bell.
The quality that really sets Berenson’s work apart comes from his wide experience as a foreign correspondent. He knows how the military works from being embedded with U.S. troops, and he has the ability to capture an exotic place and time with rich detail.
In The Shadow Patrol, Wells is assigned to find a mole in Kabul after al-Qaeda plants a double agent in the CIA who blows himself up to devastating effect (a scenario reminiscent of a real-life incident in Afghanistan a couple years ago)
In his quest, Wells also uncovers a drug-smuggling ring run by a Delta Force sniper, a burnt-out case who is uncaring that his illegal operation also is being used to move more than just heroin.
In case you think Berenson is turning into just another mainstream media writer who goes into places where evil operates and sees only the bad in the American military, he sets up his story with a chance for Wells to defend his country rhetorically.
Wells sits down with his long-estranged son, and they engage in an argument between someone who has seen the evil in the world and someone who mouths typical liberal bromides. One wonders if Berenson hasn’t had this exchange himself after returning from being embedded with American troops.
“These people we fight, they target civilians. Innocents… They strap bombs to kids your age, and blow themselves up in crowded markets.”
“When we fire missiles and blow up houses in Pakistan, what’s that?”
“I’m telling you, I’ve seen this up close, and we make mistakes, but these guys are not our moral equivalents.”
Right now, no one is better than Alex Berenson in writing thrillers about “those long, inconclusive conflicts that ground to a halt without parades or treaties, wars where the United States had a hundred different goals but the enemy had none, save to send American soldiers home in body bags.” Read them in order, and don’t miss one.