Tour’s Books Blog

March 22, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Fault Line by Barry Eisler

Barry Eisler is arguably the best action thriller writer working today, though you’d never know it by Fault Line.  He’s better than Lee Child, Jack Higgins, Brad Thor, Kyle Mills, Vince Flynn, even Daniel Silva, who is his nearest competition.  Yes, he really is that good.  His plots are intelligent, his world building some of the best out there (that’s also Silva’s greatest strength) and his action realistic.  His characters have depth, his ability to paint an atmosphere with words rivals Silva and his action scenes are as good as anyone’s – maybe better.  That’s why this book seems like a more spectacular failure than it really is.  If this was Mills, Thor, Flynn, or Higgins I doubt I would judge it so harshly.  Child has slipped lately, just not as badly.  Sliva’s deterioration is much more subtle and involves his plots and lead character, so only his hardcore fans really see it.  This was the literary equivalent of a NASCAR wreck.

The premise of Fault Line is not all that original.  The whole concept of encryption that is nearly unbreakable is one that’s been done before.  Versions have even played out in the news over the years as the government has forced various encryption software manufacturers to turn over source code so they can break encrypted files, always invoking the argument that it a matter of public safety and national security.  Neither is killing off the creator of an encryption code.  Even Windtalkers had a version of ‘kill the source code’, in that case it was shoot the code talker as a key plot element!  Right from the start, the plot has no new ground, so Eisler set himself a formidable task: find a new take on a well explored area and make your characters different yet believable.

Next are the three key protagonists, again they’re predictable and shallow:  Ben Treven is the eldest son in a family of three and in some ways a misfit in his family.  He’s the athlete who became a soldier, not the academic his family wanted.  A former Ranger, he now works as an assassin for a black ops military unit.  He believes people should be grateful to him and others for protecting them and has a certain disdain for those ordinary people. Alex Treven, the youngest, is a super smart kid who always showed off and acted like being smart somehow makes him better than others.  Now he’s clawing his way up to a partnership in a major law firm with a specialty in patent law.  His condescension toward others and scheming against his nominal boss is totally believable.  Richard Hilzoy’s encryption patent is his ticket to the coveted partnership.  Sarah Hosseini is a young first year associate at the firm and another smart patent lawyer.  The only child of Iranian parents caught in the US when the Shah was overthrown, she’s trying to make her parents happy by being a successful lawyer.  She’s smart and beautiful, but not all that happy or satisfied with her career.  Ten years younger than Alex, she hasn’t developed his arrogance or lust for the trappings of power.

Finally there is the inter-character tension, which Eisler built with a really old plot device of childhood angers and another round of clichéd tragic family events – a sister killed in a car accident, a father’s suicide – that shapes how the brothers interact.  Ben believes himself more virtuous and deserving of thanks for the dangerous and deadly work he does for ‘the nation’.  Alex believes himself the more virtuous because he was the one who stayed home and dealt with all the emotional fallout of their sister’s death, their father’s suicide and their mother’s cancer while Ben was off playing solider.  Frankly, I thought they both needed to just GROW UP and please, dear God, get over themselves.  (All that was missing was the Smothers Brothers doing their “Mom Always Liked You Best!” routine.)  Not to mention the whole thing plays out in flashbacks throughout the book like some new kind of psychological torture for readers.

Eisler makes a half hearted attempt at examining some difficult issues by having the idealistic lawyer Sarah challenge the realist Ben about how covert operations run and how many laws get violated by our own government.  The arguments on the ethical, legal and practical aspects of national security aren’t truly explored in any meaningful or intelligent way.   It’s all just shallow sound bite sized rhetoric used by both sides of a very complex, important, rather uncomfortable issue.  It came off as a gratuitous bit of tired soapbox philosophizing on Eisler’s part.

Ben is constantly belittling his brother Alex and Sarah about being naïve about the risks and lack of observational skills and failing to take basic personal protection and safety seriously.  (It gets old fast.)  Bizarrely, it’s Ben who makes the most egregious mistakes – ones that an operator of his experience should never have made.  It’s Ben’s hubris that eventually exposes them.  Frankly, I would think most operators given to such judgment errors would have suffered a Darwinian fate fairly early in their careers, thereby ending them abruptly.

The last inevitably trite plot element – both brothers are attracted to Sarah.  Alex feels getting involved at work would be a ‘weakness’, compromising his goal of partnership.  Ben is suspicious because of her heritage, infuriating Sarah.  Gee, never saw that coming, huh?  OK – for another 20 points, guess which one manages to get Sarah in the sack.

The book starts out well enough with inventor Richard Hilzoy mentally gloating about the meeting with influential venture capitalists setup by Alex that will see him well on his way to the great wealth and personal vindication he so desperately wants.  A bullet ends his dreams and his life and maybe Alex’s as well.  After spending hours with the cops, Alex goes into salvage mode and next morning tries to contact his Patent Office insider to check on the status of the application.  Instead he learns that the man is dead of apparent natural causes.  That night, he can’t sleep, so he goes to soak in the tub to relax and think when he hears – something.  Once he’s sure it isn’t his imagination, he searches the bathroom cabinet for a weapon, uses an aerosol cleaner on the man who enters the room and then runs naked to his car straight to the police.  A visit to his house causes nothing but doubts by the cops as nothing seem out of place, nothing has been taken and there’s no hard evidence that anything at all really happened.  Next morning Ben calls the detective who took his statement on Hilzoy and the break-in at his house and listened to his concern about the death of the man at the Patent Office.  The only news was the autopsy was ‘inconclusive’.  Panic begins setting in.  He decides to contact his solider brother for help.

Meanwhile, in Turkey, Ben Treven is on an assignment to eliminate two Iranian nuclear scientists.  With the patience of a sniper he plans and awaits his chance.  The choice of hotels suggests the men plan on sightseeing while in Istanbul, so the popular spice market would be his best chance.   Sure enough, the two scientists and their security bodyguards head out in that direction.  Ben plays tourist, complete with camera and guidebook, at the sights, watching and waiting.  This is where Eisler does his best work.  (Dealing with the ins and outs of an operator in action is the one saving grace of the book.)  Ben does get the two scientists and their guards, but runs into a very unexpected operator when escaping and ends up killing him as well.  From the look of it, he’s a Russian.  Ben heads to Ankara till things cool off and reports in, including the accidental Russian killing.  Then text message from his brother and subsequent call to Alex brings Ben back to help his brother.  At this point, we’re 33% through the book!

Together the brothers go to Alex’s office and find all the files relating to the patent missing, the computer backups are gone. Calling Sarah to see if she has them, her files are gone as well.  Alex’s boss claims to know nothing about them.  Ben realizes he has to move both of them and that’s when the story should really roll, right?  I mean, we’ve waited through build up, so here’s the heart pounding part.  Nope.  They squabble like spoiled kids, and bits and pieces of their history are served up along with the action.  Boy is that annoying.  Everything is so choppy you can’t find the thriller for all the pathos going on.  Ben’s kills two more Russians, likely mafia contract hitters, before they move along – running for their lives – to the Ritz Carlton.

After endlessly reminding Sarah and Alex about staying away from all they know and might know them, what does this very experienced operator do?  He calls his boss, Col. Horton, Hort for short.   Now think back and who pointed out the people who would most want this creation to never see the light of day?  US Intelligence agencies.  And here Ben is, calling the very people likely to be tasked with the work.

No more spoilers.  Just suffice it to say the two lawyers figure out a way to thwart the government’s efforts to stifle the code by figuring out where Hilzoy hid the source code.  Of course, anyone who has read more than 10 thrillers knew way back in the beginning.  Is there a bigger offense for a thriller than being BORING?  Overall, very disappointing.  Forgivable for a first book, but not for a man with Eisler’s existing resume of publications.  It is my sincere and devout hope that Barry Eisler leaves this kind of book to Nora Roberts or Suzanne Brockman.  And please, someone take his TV remote and block Lifetime, Oxygen and Hallmark channels!

For those triva buffs, Rain gets a passing mention by Ben as a ‘legend’ of some mysterious assassin who specializes in natural deaths.

My Grade: D+ to C-

Who would enjoy this book:  Not Eisler’s fans, that’s for sure.  Maybe those who still read the recent Jack Higgins books.

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