Saturday, December 20, 2008


By David Morrell
Vanguard Press
228 pages

I’m somewhat ambivalent about what I call “gimmick” books. These are novels written specifically around a particular theme or event. Obviously publishers love nothing more than to have Christmas related titles out during this time of the year and I would imagine some editors actually suggest such projects to their authors. This is where the tricky stuff comes into play. Imagine you are David Morrell, one of the finest writers of modern pulp thrillers working today and a friend innocently brings up the idea of your writing a Christmas spy thriller.

Which, we are told in the book’s acknowledgement, is exactly what transpired. Now I am a huge fan of Morrell’s work and when I saw this gaily colored and designed dust jacket on the bookstore’s shelf, I immediately picked it up. But this time with a good degree of trepidation. I already know Morrell can write amazing suspense tales and his action is second to none in the seat-of-your pants category, but a sentimental Christmasy plot? I left the store with some serious doubts and not a little bit of natural reader curiosity.

Of course, being completely honest here, I too fell victim to the fun idea of having a Christmas themed pulp fiction book to review. I’ve never claimed to be impervious to a savvy marketing campaign. Ha.

The book opens on Christmas Eve in the city of Sante Fe, New Mexico. A group of immigrant Russian gangsters from New York, under the employ of Al Quaida, have come to this southwestern town to kidnap an Arab baby; a baby hailed by the world press as the Child of Peace. The father is a Palestinian doctor and founder a very powerful peace movement in the Middle East. Of course there are always those who prefer the world as messed up as it is, as they profit from its suffering. These are the agents of evil who will stop at nothing to prevent this baby from heralding a new peace.

Amongst this gang of ruthless killers is an American spy, Paul Kagan. Born of Russian parents who fled to this country to escape the oppression of Soviet Communism, Kagan has been raised to despise any organization or government that robs people of their freedoms. Able to pose as a Russian outlaw, he has infiltrated the gang and over the years becomes the trusted right hand of the leader, Andrei, a brutal and efficient killer. Still, the things he is force to do to maintain his role gradually begin to eat away at his soul until he fears he will become as corrupt as the forces he battles. But his controllers refuse to allow him to quit, always claiming there is one more threat to be dealt with, one more plot to be uncovered.

Thus, on this Christmas Eve, in the middle of the kidnapping, something inside the Kagan snaps and he rebels. He snatches the baby away from the Russians, killing one of them in the process and flees into the crowded streets, but not before being shot in the arm as he escapes. And thus begins the chase that is the book’s main plot and one I guarantee you will keep you turning pages as if they were on fire. Soon the wounded and desperate spy takes shelter in a modest home where he encounters a battered young mother and her son. The three quickly become allies and set about turning the house into a defensible fort to repel the coming siege. All are determined to save the baby, even at the cost of their lives.

Morrell is a marvelous storyteller and he revels in retelling the classic Nativity Story in this fresh and fantastic manner. By the time the book’s action finale rolls around, he has created a powerful scenario that hinges on the philosophical tenet that the bravest among us are the peacemakers. In the end, Kagan’s salvation depends on his ability to trust his enemy, to see him with fresh and forgiving eyes. Whereas in that microcosm between two men, Morrell paints the real challenge of all mankind, do we have the courage to trust? Christmas tells us we can.

Finally, I want to thank all of you. Because of your repeated visits to Pulp Fiction Reviews, this endeavor has become more rewarding than I ever dreamed possible. Over the past two years thousands of you have stopped by to read these reviews, discuss them and, to my happy surprise, gone out and purchased the books. Publishers have taken note, as have writers so that my mail box is always filled with new books because of your support. Thank you and Merry Christmas to all of you. Now make yourself a cup of eggnog and go read a good book.

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