Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Tuesday Morning Book Review: The Riviera Contract by Arthur Kerns.


I have been reading thrillers for years, ever since my mom's friend Betty Gralton gave me an old copy of Alistair Mac Lean's Fear is the Key. In the subsequent 40 years I have read hundreds and hundreds, in every sub-genre from historical to Eco, political to medical, religious to international. In the process, one picks up a few things about the genre: the plots, the settings, the dialogue, and, especially, the main characters. Fleming's Bond and LeCarre's Smiley have been oft referenced--guilty--and so I will leave then out, but the usual MC is often very predictable, a talented (plug-in ex-Navy Seal, NSA agent, Federal Marshal etc.) forced out of service because of a (plug-in alcohol problem, bad relationship, horrific experience) is forced back into service to save the life of his (plug-in red-headed, blonde, brunette) ex-wife, who he (wait for it) still loves. You've read that one too?

But it's a formula that works: the previous career gives the MC a plausible reason to be involved in the plot, without being just yet another faceless agent in a clandestine service. The flaw provides  a reason why the MC left his career in the first place, as well as a source of internal conflict he must overcome. And the saving of the red-headed ex-wife allows the reader to develop the all-important visceral empathy that keeps the reader and MC connected for a long time. (Consider A Time to Kill, by--the real--John Grisham: I read that book twenty years ago and I still remember Carl Lee Hailey, the father of the 10-year-old black girl raped by two white boys who takes justice into his own hands. That's the kind of visceral empathy I am talking about.)

The problem is that formulas which work get used a lot--especially in the crowded thriller market--and many of them start blending together like so many westerns and romances. Enter Hayden Stone, Art Kern's former FBI agent scooped out of retirement by the CIA to fill a vacancy in the glamorous French Riviera. Stone is divorced from his wife not because of his infidelity, but rather his wife's boredom, and your first clue about Kerns' twist on the tried and true is apparent: the entire book is heavily steeped in reality. No suspension of disbelief here. Which is not say that Hayden Stone is boring or mundane: Stone is anything but boring, but the point remains valid--The Riviera Contract is the genuine article, written by a industry insider. Kerns' long tenure in the FBI not only flavors Stone as am MC, but the dialogue between characters and the pacing as well. The reader gets a real sense of how operatives actually speak to one another, as opposed to the sexier but less realistic witty repartees that Bond was famous for. And the pacing is realistic as well, moving at the logic of an actual investigation, as opposed to from one violent scene to the--somewhat connected--next. The winner here is authenticity--and I think you will find it a refreshing change. 

Kerns' experience sinks into the writing as well; the prose is direct and not over-written, and the plot might well have been--and probably was--taken from Kerns' long career in counter-terrorism. Add to this the perfect setting for a spy thriller, a French Riviera that is painted by Kerns with subtle and reserved brush strokes, and you have a debut thriller leaving you wanting a sequel in short order. 

Speaking of that, Kerns' next book, The African Contract, is due out soon, also on Diversion Books. Diversion Books is mainly an e-publisher, but does have a print-on-demand option for those of you who still like the feel of a book in your hand. I bought my copy of The Riviera Contract through Kindle, but it is available with any e-reader. 

And don't worry--the brunette ex is in there, and she's just as shapely and exotic as any Bond girl.

Thanks again for tuning in to the inaugural post of The Tuesday Morning Book Review on PeterHogenkampWrites. I will end by posting a direct link to DiversionBooks for those of you whose interest I piqued.  The Riviera Contract

If you are in a mood for book reviews (and since I am in a mood for shameless self-promotion) here are links to several other books I have reviewed: Saving Laura, by Jim Satterfield 
An American Spy, by Olen Steinhauer