By Stuart Woods
Putnam. 290 pp. $25.95
Stuart Woods's 31st novel opens with a nice bit of understatement: "For the past few weeks, Teddy had been methodically killing people with whom he disagreed politically, and, as he had expected, the nation's law-enforcement agencies had not taken it kindly." Teddy Fay, we learn, has recently retired from the CIA and busied himself killing right-wing political figures -- the speaker of the House, a South Carolina senator and a TV evangelist among them. Sure enough, the powers that be disapprove. The FBI surrounds Teddy's hideout, but he escapes to New York City, where he adopts a new identity.
We move next to Holly Barker, the heroine of this and several of Woods's previous books with "Orchid" in their titles. Holly was an Army officer and the police chief of Orchid Beach, Fla., and now she has been recruited to join the CIA. Soon she is part of the team searching for Teddy Fay, a master criminal, expert with computers, disguises and weapons. He is blessed with not only an unlimited supply of money but also a lover who is highly placed at the CIA. He embarks on a new wave of assassinations, this time of various Middle Eastern spies and terrorists who are clustered around the United Nations.
"Iron Orchid" reads easily and is mildly suspenseful, but it's often silly and cartoonish; the best thing about it is that Woods doesn't seem to take it very seriously. Still, he is a successful writer, and his new novel can be read as a case study in what works in commercial fiction these days.
One example is how heavily Woods relies on coincidence to keep his plot moving -- it's lazy writing, but it works for him. Teddy is in New York killing people, and the CIA and FBI can't find him. They hear, though, that he likes opera, so one night Holly stakes out the opera house at Lincoln Center and is approached by an elderly gentleman who invites her to join him for the performance. She doesn't know he's Teddy in disguise and he doesn't know she's CIA -- they figure that out later. New York is a big, crowded city, but Teddy and Holly keep running into each other -- at a record store, on the subway and when she's walking her dog. After five or six such meetings, the device becomes ridiculous. A bit self-consciously, Woods even notes that "the string of coincidences was driving [Teddy] crazy" -- but presumably Woods's readers don't mind.
Holly is an example of a character designed to win our interest and sympathy by being plucky, patriotic and always a good girl at heart. At the outset we meet her father, Senior Master Sgt. Hamilton Barker, U.S. Army (ret.), so we know she comes from good stock. He's made her a world-class marksman and she's handy with her fists. Her military career was cut short when she filed sexual harassment charges against a superior officer, which qualifies her as gutsy. As the police chief of a small town, she solved several cases that baffled the FBI. She loves her dog. She loves sex, too (as she is obliged to confess during a polygraph test), but isn't having much. In fact, halfway through the novel, she decides she needs a man and calls on her old friend, lawyer/investigator Stone Barrington (the star of another of Woods's series), who obliges in what might be delicately called a walk-on role. For me, the only interesting thing about the rather bland and obvious Holly is that early in the novel she flies to the Cayman Islands and secretly deposits more than $5 million of "drug money she had stolen from the hundreds of millions confiscated in a huge drug raid." No doubt there is a high-minded reason for her theft, but we don't learn it in this novel -- it is one of several loose ends that await a sequel.
"Iron Orchid" is also notable as an example of a political novel that has nothing to do with the real world of politics. The prolific Woods writes a third series about President Will Lee, who is the chief executive in this novel, too. His wife, Kate, is the CIA director. This leads to bedroom dialogue like, "Why, Mr. President, you're not wearing any clothes," followed by, "Why, Madame Director, neither are you." Snappy dialogue aside, President Will and Director Kate are both concerned about the capture of Teddy Fay, but they don't seem to have much else on their plates. Americans are not dying in foreign wars or suffering untold misery because of natural disasters, nor is Will Lee confronting rising deficits, White House scandals or falling poll numbers. He seems not to have a worry in the world except finding one nutty ex-CIA man, and he can count on the intrepid Holly Barker to do that for him. It's a fantasyland that is clearly attractive to many readers and probably to some politicians as well. But reality it's not.