“Jammer” Davis is to detectives what bulls are to china closets. As he explains it, “I am more of a nuisance than a detective. But I get results.” And that he does. Hidden inside this techno thriller is a mystery novel, and it succeeds as both.
The CIA has lost one of it’s top secret, latest generation drones, Blackstar, somewhere in the vicinity of the Horn Of Africa. It is assumed destroyed upon crashing, and it may have even gone down in the Red Sea, so no worries…until a “source” in Sudan gets word out that it may just be hidden inside a secretive hanger on the edge of a desert airport operated by an upstart third world air cargo company, Franklin, Bates and Noble; FBN. FBN is indeed a Fly By Night aviation company, hiding behind an international consortium of owners and named after a law firm that has a bad reputation for representing dubious clients, many of Arab descent.
Neither the airport, or FBN existed until a few months ago, so for a company flying ancient DC-3s as cargo aircraft around Africa and supplying arms to rebels and dictators alike to to maintain a secret hanger is a bit suspicious. To cement that suspicion, the airline is headed up by an Islamic cleric named Rafiq Khoury. In what sounds too convenient, FBN recently reported one of their DC-3s crashed, and as part of an International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) crash investigation, the CIA has manipulated the job to get an NTSB investigator sent in to investigate the cause of the crash.
This ‘deus ex machina’ could have been a flaw in the writers craft, but Larsen handles it the way he handled fighter jets in real life. Khoury called for an investigation in fear that someone may have actually seen the DC-3 go down, and he expected Sudan’s own Air Safety investigators to handle the investigation and pencil whip it. He didn’t expect that it would get kicked upstairs to the world body, ICAO, and certainly not that they would have the temerity to assign the job to the hated American’s and the NTSB.
This is where Jammer comes in. A maverick ex-fighter jock, who flew numerous missions in Desert Storm, and was a better pilot than Airman – no respect for bullshit from his superiors, he recently worked for the NTSB as a chief air crash investigator. Better yet, he has a reputation of charging ahead and getting the job done. The CIA asks Davis’ old Air Force buddy to recruit Davis to go to Sudan and under the guise of investigating the crash of a 70 year old DC-3, and determine clandestinely whether Blackstar has been recovered by this cleric. But Davis’s thinks Clandestine is something you light in church, he’s about as secretive and covert as a tarantula on an angel food cake.
Davis is officially retired from both the Air Force and the NTSB, and is dealing with the recent death of his wife in a car crash, as well as a teenage daughter who has grown distant from him following the loss of her mother, and is currently attending school in Europe. Davis takes the job.
As soon as he lands in Khartoum, the action begins when he is way laid by some Sudanese highway robbers who end up biting off more than they can chew in the 6’4” 230 plus pound Davis. And when he arrives at the airport run by FBN, he is greeted by their chief pilot, Bob Schmidt, an ex fighter jock himself whose irresponsibility led him to a dishonorable discharge from the Air Force, brought about by Davis’ condemning report. Needless to say, no love loss between Schmidt-head and Jammer.
What follows is a top notch mystery, cloaked in a techno thriller, as immediately Davis discovers that, as suspected FBN flies arms, drugs, and black market diamonds as well as UN Humanitarian supplies to NGOs. After all, this is the horn of Africa where there is no effective governments but there are plenty of buyers for all of the above.
Davis is there investigating the DC-3 crash only as a cover for finding out what happens in the closely guarded hanger, and whether or not some extremist faction, or dubious private army has recovered the high tech and stealthy Blackstar. But Davis can’t leave the DC-3 crash alone. Things don’t add up. For instance, why did FBN even report the crash in the first place, and further, why did they apparently report one plane crashed, that Davis discovers is actually still being used, but in disguise of another DC-3. To add to the masterfully wrought tension of the story, Davis develops a yen for an Italian aid doctor and his sparring match with Schmidt is nonstop. His side trips to avenge the beating of the Italian doctor and one of her African aids, gets him on the wrong side of the Sudanese army as well.
Davis follows the clues, like a bull following a red cape, from the top of the worlds highest pyramid (which he nearly wipes out) to the depths of the Red Sea, the whole time thoroughly pissing off everybody that gets in his way.
The book is very story driven through the use of the mystery wrapped in the thriller, and fans of Clancy and Coonts will love it, as Larsen writes tighter prose than Clancy and doesn’t befuddle the reader with technology like Coonts. The characters are well developed, if a bit predictable and light-weight at first glance. But in the end they turn out to, not quite, live up to the expected stereotypes, and consequently leave the reader very satisfied and hoping to read more of the in future adventures. The plot is excellently conceived, and includes very pertinent subject matter, including a peripheral reference and ‘setup’ to the recent events of the Arab Spring revolts.
The sense of place, the lawless horn of Africa, is almost a cliché, but he avoids cliché and goes deeper to explore the heart and soul and motivations of the real people, not the view point the reader would have by only listening to the popular press.
It all adds up to a very good read, and one the reader is likely going to want to revisit time and time again. If Ward Larsen isn’t already considered in the top tier of thriller writers today, he is grabbing shirt tails, a la Jammer Davis, and throwing others off the ladder as he reaches the top.
Review copy provided by Oceanview Publishing through NetGalley
Copyright © 2011 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved