In "Kings in the Counting House," Herbert Mitgang, journalist, novelist, and perhaps ex-spook, attempts to duplicate the success of his earlier thriller of international intrigue, "The Montauk Fault." The result is a formulaic sequel lacking just about all the elements that made the original such a good read.
Mitgang has committed the ultimate sin of a thriller writer: Instead of creating a page-turner, he has concocted a page re-turner. No matter what time of day or night I picked it up, I was forced to turn the pages backward in order to remember what I had been reading before dozing off in midsentence.
Although both novels deal with important and critical national and international situations--some definitely real, some imaginative and perhaps even possible--there is a heavy pretentiousness in "Kings in the Counting House" that seems to increase in inverse ratio to the shortage of substance in the plot.
Unless familiar with the jargon of space and broadcast engineering, one might be put off by such descriptive passages as: "The station's dish-shaped receivers rotated in azimuth and elevation in thousandths of a degree, tested and calibrated by the radio emissions from the star Cassiopeia A, light years away." Or "Its own geostationary satellites were positioned above the Atlantic spectrum." And "Not to forget the transponders of far-ranging international conglomerates in the business of communications, getting and sending heavenly bulletins to ground stations linked all over the Continent . . ." And that's only the prologue.
The cutthroat dismemberment of great newspapers by the broadcasting networks; the secret international machinations of satellite television broadcasting by the same networks; the philosophical conundrums of journalism versus propaganda--i.e., is satellite broadcasting freedom of the airways or an invasion of sovereign rights? Will the Algerians succeed in blowing up the American satellite earth station?
There actually are some fascinating possibilities in Mitgang's subject matter. But the adventures of his hero, ex-journalist-editor Sam Linkum--during an international think tank conference on Lake Como, followed by a world information meeting in Algiers sponsored by the U.N. International Information Agency--as the emissary of Hap Chorley, civilian director of the U.S. Air Force Security Service, have more fizzle than fireworks. There is even less fizz in Linkum's romantic adventures with Jennie Ives, the ex-foreign affairs newspaperwoman turned National Public Radio broadcaster.
Part one is given over to setting up the interconnecting links of the plot, introducing the three main characters and awkwardly patchworking in background information and relationships the author has developed in more interesting detail in his pilot project. Mitgang also spends Part one taking potshots at the broadcast networks, which he portrays as castrators of print journalism, turning newspapers into "short-take," "Life Style" mush. It isn't until Part two, almost halfway into the book, that things begin to move.
If experience and background could ensure success, Mitgang would have it made. Cultural correspondent of The New York Times, prolific writer-researcher in the fields of fiction, historical biography and criticism, he also was connected with the Air Corps Counterintelligence, and has written a study of television and the First Amendment. He certainly should be at home with his subject. Perhaps that is the main problem. Mitgang has turned what should be a fast, hard-hitting, provocative tale into a didactic discussion mouthed by pipe-cleaner figures with names.
I have no quarrel with any of Mitgang's political or philosophical premises. But I do quarrel with the novel he uses for their dissemination. The love scenes are mundane, the terrorism lacks both suspense and terror, and the intrigue is singularly unintriguing. I doubt that it would interest the kings in the counting house, and it certainly wouldn't be much fun at the beach.