Military, Industrial And Complex
Monday, October 27, 2008
By Sean Chercover
Morrow. 295 pp. $23.95
Sean Chercover's "Trigger City" starts as a conventional thriller -- a private investigator digging into a routine murder case -- but soon broadens its focus to examine the ever-expanding power of secret government agencies. Chercover quotes from President Dwight D. Eisenhower's prescient 1961 farewell address, which warned that "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. . . . We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes." Besides being highly entertaining, "Trigger City" argues that America's military-industrial complex has by now far outstripped Eisenhower's worst fears.
Chercover himself has been a Chicago private investigator. His Ray Dudgeon, still recovering from torture by the Mafia in a previous adventure, is asked by a retired Army colonel to investigate the murder of his daughter. The case seems open-and-shut. The daughter, Joan Richmond, was shot to death by a co-worker, Steven Zhang, who then left a note confessing the crime and shot himself. Other co-workers, and even Zhang's widow, said he was behaving strangely, perhaps insanely, in the weeks before the shootings.
The Chicago police were glad to call the murder solved and move on. But Dudgeon makes a discovery. Both Richmond and her killer previously worked for a huge security company called Hawk River that contracts with the U.S. military to provide services around the world. The details on Hawk River, particularly that its owner is a former Navy SEAL, recall Blackwater, whose owner, Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL, was grilled before a House committee a year ago after his men allegedly gunned down unarmed Iraqi citizens on a Baghdad street.
Dudgeon learns that the dead woman was scheduled to testify before a congressional committee, and he suspects she was killed to keep her from revealing fraud and other misdeeds by Hawk River. He meets with its owner and chief of security, who warn him to back off. But Hawk River proves not to be the biggest problem he faces. Soon he is also menaced by a shadowy intelligence agency.
After he has already met with an FBI agent, two men stop him on the street and say they're with the Department of Homeland Security. When they refuse to show IDs and Dudgeon won't talk to them, one says: "You do not want to be labeled as obstructing our agency's efforts to protect the homeland. Suppose we put your name on the terrorism watch list. Could take years to clear your name." Worse threats follow. Trying to protect the accused killer's widow, Dudgeon soon fears for his life.
Chercover portrays both Hawk River and the unnamed intelligence agency that has used Hawk River to do its dirty work as capable of starting wars and carrying out assassinations of leaders abroad or of its critics at home. Some readers will see this as left-wing paranoia, while others will think it an all-too-accurate portrayal of how elements of our government operate. Ultimately, the reader wonders if Dudgeon, even with the help of an honest FBI agent, can survive the wrath of the military-industrial conspiracy and whether any sort of victory over it is possible. The two Zhangs -- the dead man and his endangered widow -- were advocates for reform in China who were imprisoned before they escaped to the United States. One of Chercover's points is that they are as menaced by the government here as they had been in China.
My main criticism of this fast-moving, suspenseful novel is that Chercover sometimes tries too hard to ratchet up the drama. When a killer with a knife is chasing Dudgeon through a shopping mall, for example, he chooses not to draw his gun for fear of hitting passersby. Asked by the incredulous police why he didn't use his gun, the PI can only say he panicked. In fact, to shoot the killer would have made perfect sense, but Chercover's alternative scenario is more visual, if not more plausible.
On the plus side, Chercover is a colorful, quotable writer. Here are samples. At the end of a meeting: "Further questioning would've only yielded further lies." On Dudgeon's injuries: "The pain was a houseguest you never invited, who doesn't know when to leave and insists on retelling the story of how you met, over and over." "The thirty-five-mile drive from Chicago to Aurora was unmarred by road construction delays. I considered calling the Vatican to report a miracle." On a psychopath: "His eyes were set too close together, like he'd been designed to attack a single goal undistracted by peripheral concerns." "A bartender is just a pharmacist with a limited vocabulary." On a young policeman: "Blond wisps of hair sprouted from his upper lip, petitioning for a promotion to the rank of mustache." It's good to find a serious political message embedded in such stylish prose.
* * *
Two residents of the greater Washington area won Anthony awards at the recent Bouchercon gathering in Baltimore: Laura Lippman, of Baltimore, whose " What the Dead Know" won for best novel, and Daniel Stashower, of Bethesda, who, along with co-editors Jon Lellenberg and Charles Foley, won the best critical work award for " Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters." The Anthonys are named for Anthony Boucher (1911-68), who wrote the Criminals at Large column for the New York Times Book Review from 1951 until his death.