I’m typically not a fan of ripped-from-the-headlines spy stories (RFTH stories for short). Besides perpetuating the familiar tropes of thriller novels, they usually show the author’s biases in the form of a “what if?” scenario where everything is illogical and cranked up to 11. However, if all RFTH stories are as incompetent, ridiculous, and unintentionally hilarious as Ted Bell’s Patriot, then I might be more willing to turn a blind eye to them.
Patriot is the ninth entry into Bell’s “NY Times Bestselling” espionage series Alexander Hawke. I haven’t read any of the previous books, but judging by the amateurishness of today’s review subject, I don’t think I’ve missed out on much. However, it would still benefit both you and me to give the series’s titular protagonist a proper introduction. I’m sure you’ll find him positively charming.
Alexander Hawke is a wealthy English nobleman with a military background, an antiquated mode of speaking, and all the trappings of your typical cookie-cutter spy: dashing good looks, loyal sidekicks, and beautiful women dropping at his feet. He grew up and attended the British version of the Naval Academy (Dartmouth), where he became a naval aviator. “Good at war” (p. 54), Hawke first flew Harrier jump jets, then graduated to fighters (despite Harriers already being fighter/attack aircraft), and flew Tomcats in the Gulf War. After mastering two high performance aircraft, Hawke did a tour with the SBS (Special Boat Squadron, British analogue to the Navy SEALs). He is now a billionaire business mogul – the 6th richest in England – who freelances by doing wet-work and commando-style antiterrorist and espionage missions for MI6 and the CIA.
Hawke is 37.
Don’t expect much realism from Patriot. But enough about that – I believe I’m getting ahead of myself here.
In this ninth installment of the Hawke series, Russian president Vladimir Putin, ever erratic, ever deluded*, has already invaded and taken over all of Ukraine (!) and now has his sights set on redrawing the rest of the European map. He’ll stop at nothing to realize his imperial dreams – including shooting down a Russian Aeroflot airliner full of innocent passengers (!!). It’s up to Hawke, who is close friends with Putin (!!!) to stop him. Meanwhile, the Russians are after Hawke’s young son Alexei, borne by an Obligatory Sexy Russian Love interest from a previous novel (Anastasia), and whom Putin personally saved from being murdered by old-guard KGB tsarist thugs at the Lubyanka (!!!!). There’s also a jumbled mess of subplots including an ex-intelligence officer with a grudge killing off CIA agents, the head of an international mercenary organization seeking revenge on the operatives who orchestrated his fall from grace, and Kremlin scientists developing a radical new weapon that will “forever alter modern warfare”.
Patriot is one of those rare spy novels in which everything from story structure to dialogue is handled ineptly. Poor editing and clunky, unrefined writing are evident from the get-go. Inconsistencies abound: in one paragraph, Harry Brock is holding Alexei’s dog in the front seat of a car and in the next paragraph the dog is described as being in the backseat. Inane dialogue veers (intentionally or not) into hilarious territory in the middle of “dramatic” scenes. It’s also difficult to take Patriot seriously when the story appears to be narrated by a high schooler:
Most evenings, like tonight, Harding Torrance walked home from the office. His cardiac guy had told him walking was the best thing for his ticker. Harding liked walking. He even wore one of those FitBit thingamajigs on his wrist to keep track of his steps. Doctor’s orders after a couple of issues popped up in his last stress test. But the truth was, Harding liked walking in Paris, especially in the rain.
Ah, April in Paris. (p. 24)
Bell’s characters are one-dimensional even by stock spy novel standards. For many of them, characterization amounts to a clumsily executed description of their appearance.
Hawke was not a man one could simply glance at and ignore. It was not just his size, his armory of biceps, musculature, rock-hardness, and the vast reserves of strength those suggested. There was a certain nobility of bearing in him; a warrior’s bearing, inherited from the knights at King Arthur’s table, as well as the proud pirate captains of the Caribbean. (p. 54)
By the end of the story, however, Hawke’s character remains paper-thin. Bell never explores how Hawke amassed his vast fortune, what motivates him to carry out dangerous missions for the CIA with unquestioning acceptance, or how he balances his spy work with his very visible status as England’s 6th richest man. Nor does Hawke seem to have a real personality. The most readers learn about him is that he’s handsome, daring, good at war and spycraft, and virtually indestructible. He’s not enough of a character to root for, but we must because he’s the spy novel protagonist. Ergo for the rest of the heroes.
The antagonists don’t fare much better. I understand black-and-white characters are a trademark of the spy thriller genre, but Patriot takes the term “cartoonish” to a whole new level. All good guys are fit, attractive, competent, and heroic, while the bad guys are unmistakably evil in look, word and deed. Rogue CIA agent Spider Payne kills with the help of female assassin Crystal Meth. Jules Szell, a Russian agent trying to poison Alexei with Polonium-laced ice cream, lives in a run-down building literally described as reeking of evil and death (p.139) with several feral children. And the less said about fictional Putin, the better. The antagonists’ motivations never develop beyond simply seeking revenge, wanting empire, or liking violence. Subtlety and complexity aren’t Bell’s forte. But considering everything said about Patriot thus far, is that really surprising?
Yet it’s the plot that gets the short(est) end of the incompetently rendered stick. It unravels in a reality alien to this world and perhaps the next. It is a reality in which two naked men can kill multiple armed prison guards with their bare hands, escape and survive in an unfamiliar Cuban jungle for three days without supplies, shelter, or a compass (all told, not shown, mind you), then jump-cut to the protagonist waking up in a CIA bigwig’s home. A reality in which the Russian president is best friends with a KNOWN foreign operative and communicates directly with the CIA. A reality which takes “suspension of disbelief” for granted in every way imaginable.
Subplots constantly battle the primary “stop Evul Russia” plot for page-space, fracturing the narrative into several pieces. Bell makes no effort to keep everything streamlined and the reader is dragged from location to barely-connected location. Patriot’s disjointed story is not helped by the errors, logical holes and ludicrous devices that advance it. Here are a few:
- Bell calls the modern FSB the KGB. Seriously, it only takes a quick Google search to get this right.
- A secret KGB base is hidden in Siberia but the Russians allow anyone to just show up on the train that stops there without any monitoring.
- White House security lets someone who isn’t 100% verified into a child’s birthday party. (He’s a Russian agent disguised as an ice cream man.)
- The Royal Bodyguards looking after Alexei in Scotland know the Spetsnaz are there and don’t call in support…with a whole night to prepare. Why the f**k would they do this? They could easily get reinforcements in – anything from a local SWAT team to SAS. They know the Russians are coming and they have a helicopter, but they don’t fly to a UK airbase to be protected by thousands of troops. Instead, they have two bodyguards, an elderly man and a child fight off 20 Spetsnaz – using that very same helicopter!
- The Spetsnaz waits until daylight to attack instead of attacking at night, when they have the advantage of surprise, stealth, and night vision equipment, which the people they are attacking lack.
- Alexei is poisoned with Polonium-210 (via ice cream), but doesn’t die because he’s the protagonist’s son.
- Putin and Hawke both drink a vial of the Russian liquid explosive “White Lightning”, which can kill if the user is near frayed electrical cords or thunderstorms with lightning. You are both too stupid to live.
- Hawke flies a Gulfstream loaded with soldiers and tactical weapons into Russia, offloads, and then mounts an assault on the bad guys. Unnoticed.
Whenever cardboard heroes and cardboard villains collided in an over-the-top action scene, I didn’t care about the outcome. Not merely because I could predict the winner with ease every time, but because I was too busy laughing at the implausibility of it all!
Surprisingly, there might be a reason why almost all aspects of storytelling are mishandled in Patriot. That’s not where Bell’s effort went. Working one’s way through Patriot, one gets the impression that he began with a right-wing political polemic and pieced together a spy story around it.
“Rosow and Putin are toe to toe over Russia’s new desire to acquire more and more real estate that used to belong to them but doesn’t anymore. Crimea and the Ukraine have made the West look like a hobbled giant. The rest of Ukraine will soon fall to the Russians and we won’t even squeal. CIA intel is that Estonia is the next item on Putin’s shopping list. He considers it already his, anyway, and he will have it. Washington is toxic these days, Alex, and our military is running on fumes. Our friends don’t trust us, and our enemies don’t fear us. I’ve never seen it this bad. And, since Rosow’s hands are tied, meaning he can hardly start World War III to prevent Vlad from doing whatever earthly hell-raising he wants to do, you appear to be the White House’s best option at the moment.” (p.111)
Heck, Bell even preaches from the mouths of his Russian antagonists!
“In my view, our adversaries are weak and confused. In addition to proving himself spineless and without morality, the current American president seems utterly ignorant of the lessons of history. He has America in full retreat. Slashing defense spending, slashing military, slashing his own border protection. The entire Mideast has become a tinderbox with a hundred beckoning fuses. Our ISIS friends, for example. The fall of Syria and Yemen. The Boko Haram in Africa. We pushed your president in Syria, barely nudged him, and he folded like a house of cards.” (p.169)
Strawman er, Rosow is a stand-in for Obama; he’s so cowardly he can’t even look foreign dignitaries in the eye as he shakes their hand. Putin is a caricature; the leader of an aggressive nation hell-bent on bringing all former Soviet states back under the Kremlin yoke. Engaging diplomatically with Russia is depicted as weak; going to war with Russia is the only acceptable solution.
It would be easy to dismiss these quotes as entirely in service to the “what if?” plot, but these are real arguments, used by a very real segment of the American political establishment to push for a harder line against Russia. To me, there’s something very dangerous about Neoconesis appearing in a mass-market spy novel like this, seemingly with no regard for the consequences of adopting such a stance…or acting on it.
Yet in the end, Patriot is still ineffective on all fronts. That Bell promotes such a reckless message in his thriller should be enough to trouble any reader**, but even the message is conveyed so gracelessly that it loses its intended effect. By the time I reached the novel’s ridiculous, pompous conclusion, where Hawke ends a fireside meeting at Putin’s private dacha by attempting to choke the drunk (!) president out, Neoconesis had receded to the back of my mind. I was far too busy laughing at cardboard Putin’s empty ramblings about empire, Hawke’s desperate attempts to sound witty and profound, the hokey dialogue, the impossible scenarios, the fact that Putin’s shadowy puppetmaster “Uncle Joe” is a dead-ringer for Joseph f***ing Stalin…
Patriot is an incomprehensible mess, but it is a glorious one. Readers looking for a good laugh (or with neocon leanings) will find it well worth their time. For everyone else, though, this thriller will be about as wholesome and pleasant as Polonium-laced ice cream.
Patriot by Ted Bell. Pub. 2015 by William Morrow. Hardcover, 529 pages. ISBN13: 9780062279415
*Seriously, though – why is Putin always irrational in these spy thrillers? Considering the popularity of the “Putin as evil mastermind” myth, you’d think someone would be able to write a levelheaded, cunning Putin. If you’re going to do a hatchet job, do it properly.
**Excepting those who already agree with the neocon position.