Tour’s Books Blog

March 3, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Shooting in the Dark by Carolyn Hougan

Filed under: Book review,espionage/intrigue — toursbooks @ 5:33 pm
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Carolyn Houghan wrote books under her own name and with husband Jim Houghan they wrote books as John F. Case – The Genesis Code was a favorite of mine years ago. She had only three books under her name and two are available from Felony and Mayhem press and 6 books under ‘John Case’ are still available on Amazon or thru one of Amazon’s used book sellers. All are intrigue, but the Case books are more in the classic intrigue thriller. Houghan died in 2007 not long after Ghost Dancer, the last book by John Case was published. Shooting in the Dark, like most Felony and Mayhem titles, was initially published in mid-1980’s. The book itself is set in 1980, so even at the time it was published it was intended as a period piece. Perhaps that’s why it has held up so well over the years. So may books in the intrigue category tend to be so ‘au courant’, leaning heavily of cutting edge technology for their plot, seem laughably dated in just a couple of years. Shooting in the Dark remains a really good and compelling read nearly 30 years later.

It’s April 1980. In November of 1979 the American Embassy was overrun by Iranian revolutionary forces loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini in retaliation for the US allowing the exiled Shah to seek medical treatment for pancreatic cancer and refusing to surrender him to Iranian authorities for trial. Diplomatic negotiations having failed, Jimmy Carter authorizes a disastrous rescue operation, Operation Eagle Claw. (Have you ever wondered what Madison Avenue wizard thinks up these names for the military?)

In the Netherlands, the coronation of Beatrix is in its final stages of preparation. In New York, Claire Sheppard is getting ready to see her dentist when her husband suddenly announces he’s leaving her for another woman. Shocked, angry, lost and confused, she suddenly decides to just go somewhere, not the Caribbean, too many couples. Somewhere being alone won’t be awful.  She picks Amsterdam. In Washington DC, Alan Dawson, Ambassador at Large for International Policy goes for his mid-day walk to Dumbarton Oaks planning to meet with an old OSS contact and disgraced CIA department director, Alex ‘Sisyphus’ Carley. Dawson neither likes nor completely trusts Sisyphus, but he’s done him favors over the years. Sisyphus tells him about Operation Eagle and how it’s doomed to fail. He needs Dawson to carry a special briefcase with built-in microphone and tape recorder to the meeting of the Circle Group (a transnational quasi policy entity) in Amsterdam and then get that tape to investigative journalist John Stenner, a man Dawson has used for ‘leaks’ before, who currently living there. The CIA, suspicious of Sisyphus, has an agent capture part of their meet on tape.

Houghan deftly weaves the story together. Stenner and Claire meet and become involved. Stenner and Dawson meet for lunch the following day and an envelope gets passed. As the two go to cross the street to the walk to the Rijksmuseum, Dawson is shot dead. Now it’s a race and Claire is a reluctant participant.

This is a complex thriller that is very well done. The unraveling of motives of the many players is fascinating. For those of us old enough to remember these events, it’s a glimpse into the past seem thru other eyes in near real time. It is curios how much it resonates to current events. When Stenner and Dawson lunch, Stenner, who is writing about the political impact and need for transnational groups asks Dawson, “What do you really think of the trend toward these transnational entities? ……. On the one hand I don’t agree with the conspiracy theorists that Circle Group or Trilateral are a bunch of elitist masterminds plotting to control the world. On the other hand, a lot of agreements do go down bypassing the … congress, or parliament, or whatever the democratic framework is…” Dawson responds by asking if Stenner knew about the water hyacinth. “A sweet little aquatic plant introduced for its decorative aspects. …… Unfortunately, a rampant grower, absolutely without peer…………. Procedures are like that: first introduced to make things nicer, to simplify things, codify things; pretty soon they multiply and choke off whatever it was they were intended to simplify…..” Some things are timeless.

I found this an altogether satisfying book. About as close as you’d get today is chick-lit romantic suspense, but this one has more universal appeal and focuses less on character and more on plot. It’s not an action thriller either. They just don’t write books like this anymore. They’d either have way more graphic action or way more graphic sex than the circumspect scenes here. But it’s the plot and the players that matter here. Take a ride thru the past and enjoy an old-fashioned thriller.

PS: The one real clue this was actually written in the 1980’s? Everyone smokes!

My Grade: B+ to A-

Who would enjoy this book: Fans of Alistair Maclean’s books, early Jack Higgins, and to a lesser extent, Victoria Holt.

Felony and Mayhem also publish The Romeo Flag by Carolyn Hougan.

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