Friday, December 17, 2010

Man vs. Ubermensch

David Cornwell, who writes under the pen name of John le Carre, and Ian Fleming actually had a background in the world of spooks, spies and international espionage before they began writing novels. Le Carre's fictional George Smiley, who "came in from the cold," and Fleming's James Bond, with his 007 "license to kill," are known to millions through books and films. Unlike those two authors, Vince Flynn has no such real-life experience, but has created a "master assassin" in the world of make believe: Mitch Rapp, who is claiming a place at center stage in the genre.

When is a book review not a book review?

It has been a few years since I wrote a book review, and I am not going to do it now, but I noted a few days ago that I would "report back" regarding my first encounter with Mitch Rapp -- the protagonist of something like eleven novels by Minnesota writer Vince Flynn. (That was a long sentence.)

I never have been a fierce fan of spy/crime fighter/detective/soldier of fortune novels per se, but I have read some along the way. Alistair MacLean and Frederick Forsyth are a couple of examples of authors I particularly like in this domain. Under the category of a series of books with a long, ongoing character/hero, Ian Fleming, (James Bond), John le Carre (George Smiley), Clive Cussler (Dirk Pitt), Lester Dent (Doc Savage) and Tom Clancy (Jack Ryan) are novelists whose fictional characters are among those with whom I am reasonably well versed at reciting their exploits.

But, to illustrate that I am not an actual fan of the genre, Vince Flynn and his Mitch Rapp have been dominating best-seller lists for more than a decade and I do not recall running across them to the degree that I actually remembered them until a month or so ago.

In a few words, the novel which introduced me to Flynn and Rapp is the much acclaimed "American Assassin." It is the story of Rapp, a twenty-three-year-old recent college graduate who is recruited into an "off-the-books," contract group of assassins formed and operated by a few individuals within the CIA. These individuals believe America's campaign against terrorism has been soft and ineffective, so they launch their own "terminate with extreme prejudice" operations.

Rapp's wife-to-be was a passenger aboard Pan Am Flight 103 that was downed by a terrorist bomb over Scotland in 1988, and the setting for the novel is roughly twenty years ago. Rapp is determined to wreak vengeance (i.e., justice), is highly intelligent and an extraordinarily gifted athlete -- factors which combine to make him an ideal weapon in the war against terror.

Since this is not a review, I will only briefly state that the novel does present an accurate and concise description of the world that was in the 1980s and early 1990s in the Near East, and American involvement as it existed in places like Beirut, Lebanon, during that era. It also provides an accurate and concise picture of the intrigue and games played by intelligence and counter-intelligence officers during Cold War years. In a sense, it is an actual recital of history.

I found no faults with the book other than it ended too abruptly for my taste. It could have been (and should have been, I think) another fifty pages in length to provide more description, detail and character study/reaction to the final events as they unfolded: To put more meat on the bones of this tale and its central characters, in a manner of speaking.

A fascinating (to me, anyway) element to the story is that Rapp, like Fleming's James Bond and unlike le Carre's George Smiley or Clancy's Jack Ryan, is considerably more than a bit of a sociopath. In a sentence, Rapp could well be the next evolutionary step in "good guy" killers, succeeding Bond.

Conversely, Rapp lacks the intellectual and the emotional qualities of the "good guy" killers in le Carre's or Clancy's worlds -- men who understand love rather than simply experience sex, and who are capable of feeling remorse and guilt for their actions -- which makes him "less real," less believable and, certainly, less literary. (Another very long sentence. So, shoot me with a Walther PPK. Do I care?)

In essence, there is not much difference between the bad guys and the good guys in their actions and reactions except that the bad guys are after wealth and power while the good guys are after justice and, ultimately, peace on earth.

A candidate for a master's degree or a doctorate could do worse than to prepare a thesis/dissertation examining the evolution of spies, assassins and soldiers of fortune in literature over the span of the last generation or two. (Longer, if Dent's creation, Doc Savage, were to be included, since most of these books were written during the 1930s.)

I have read a synopsis of Flynn's other novels about Rapp and, frankly, the story line in all of them seems a bit too far-fetched to interest me, so I doubt I will pick up another unless someone gives it a great recommendation. The fly in the ointment of the Mitch Rapp series is that our young "Ubermensch" seems to me to be presented as an individual only one step away from donning a cape and flying to the rescue. I prefer fictional (as well as real-life) characters, including assassins, to have both feet on earth.


Jack said...

Yeah, I like James Bond much, and I liked when Mag was out and we could watch some boxing!

Fram Actual said...

Yes, Jack, the "Friday Night Fights," including a couple European title matches. I greatly enjoyed them.

And, how about the Super Bowl on Polish television in the middle of the night, and a few playoff football games over the internet? You might be the only Polish cat in the world to be an expert on American football.

I hope we are able to repeat some of those events.

Something special ....