One of the things that makes it very difficult to write a conservative-oriented thriller is that you cannot simply assume that your audience will understand your references. In a standard pot-boiler, written for an American market brought up in public schools and addicted to Hollywood movies and television shows, there are so many shortcuts you can use to keep the action moving. For example, the phrase “corporate executive” equals “bad guy,” and everyone knows it. Likewise, conservative politicians are malevolent hypocrites, who are usually in bed with the corporate executive.
On the other side of the good guy/bad guy divide, if the character opens his morning New York Times, you know that he’s good, smart, and has the right values. People of Middle Eastern extraction are always good, even though wrong-thinking people enliven the plot by stereotyping them as bad, and blacks and Native Americans have surreal insights into the human soul.
The only good members of the military are the ones who are emotionally tormented by their service. If you enjoyed your service, you must be a psychopath. (Jack Reacher is anomalous in this regard, although Lee Child, the author, makes it clear that the military generally is run by greedy fools. The military background is useful only to establish Reacher’s investigative, physical, and artillery expertise.)
Standard thrillers are, in a word, predictable. But they’re also satisfying, because right (or, I should say, Left) triumphs at the end, after the hero has survived hair-raising gun battles (“Crazy people, don’t do this at home or school”), and then shot the conservative politician or corporate executive through both kneecaps before flinging him off a tall building.
Writers with a conservative perspective have two choices: they can also rely on shorthand references, but that means they’ve got a very small audience, because most readers have been fed on standard media fare and don’t understand nuances that make sense to those with a broader knowledge base. Or they can turn their books in boring treatises, with more preaching than action. For this reason, it’s always a great pleasure to come across a thriller that’s got a conservative orientation, but that is neither preachy nor too dogmatic. Allen Mitchum’s 28 Pages: A Political Thriller is such a book.
Mitchum’s protagonist, Heather Grahl, is a sharp young lawyer who’s good at what she does, but incurious about the world around her. This changes when she receives a phone call notifying her that her sister’s beheaded body was found on a yacht in Bimini. The evidence points to a Saudi conspiracy to destroy forever 28 pages that were omitted from the 9/11 Commission Report. Soon, Heather finds herself on the run, a target of a Saudi hit squad. Help comes to her from two people: an expert in Saudi’s involvement in the worldwide jihad, and a shadowy figure who may have been complicit in her sister’s death or, perhaps, was a victim himself.
Mitchum’s book, of necessity, has didactic interludes, since the plot make sense only if he can educate the reader about Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism, which is the most aggressive form of Islamic jihad in the world. Overall, though, Mitchum keeps these passages short and sweet, all the while developing the book’s characters and increasing the tension level. Indeed, when I was about three-quarters of the way through, I got so nervous, I had to put the book aside and take my dog for a walk. By my standards, that’s a pretty darn good thriller.
Another appealing thing about Mitchum’s writing is that he avoids the standard literary clichés I mentioned in the first few paragraphs of this review. People are defined by their actions and beliefs, not by their racial or national identity. Further, Mitchum isn’t partisan insofar as he believes that all Washington administrations, Democrat and Republican, have fallen prey to the siren song of Saudi money. Because Mitchum isn’t a blind partisan, the core idea driving his novel — namely, that the Saudis are not our friends — is more credible than it would have been had he attacked a specific politician administration.
28 Pages is quick, enjoyable read, and one I highly recommend for those who like thrillers, but not the standard politics that go with so many of them.