“A man who tries to carry a cat home by its tail will learn a lesson that can be learned in no other way.” ~ Mark Twain
Synopsis (from the Publisher): “Charlie McKenzie was the best in the business of CIA dirty work — until he was double-crossed by his bosses and jailed to cover up a mammoth intelligence blunder. Now they want him back. And Charlie wants to get even.
A Russian spy has stumbled upon the most important U.S. military breakthrough since the atomic bomb — a top-secret technology called Whirlwind — and only the disgraced former operative has the skills necessary to retrieve it. But Charlie already knows too much. And once Whirlwind is back in Company hands, his enemies intend to betray him again — and put him out of the game permanently.
However, Charlie McKenzie has other plans. And he won’t be that easy to kill.”
Why It Works For Me: Having finished my fourth (or could it be fifth?) playback of one of my favorite thrillers in audiobook, I felt the need to voice for myself, in regards to the audiobook, and my offline, but still good friend, Corey Wilde (who shared my admiration for the novel) why that is. First, anyone capable of finding a fitting Mark Twain quote like the one above to greet the reader or listener as they start their journey with the work, will always be aces in my book.
The late-Joseph R. Garber was just such an author. The former and self-described ‘army brat’, who eventually joined the Army himself, once worked for AT&T — “…then the world’s largest and most boring company”, his words — and later wrote business and technology articles for Forbes magazine. In between writing literary criticism for the San Francisco Review of Books and other ventures, Garber wrote fiction and non-fiction freelance. His first novel was published in 1989, Rascal Money.
However, where he made a name for himself as an author was with his second novel. One that in fact became an international bestseller, 1995’s corporate thriller Vertical Run. I have a distinct fondness for this book as it turned out to be my last truly compulsive read. As this was the same year I became a father, the result being my book reading took the bullet. Only audiobooks saved my reading life. I think all readers experience the all-consuming novel at one time or another — as it happens, I once documented my first ever ‘one day read’ over at my friend Kaye Barley’s blog.
Yet, as much I was enthralled with Vertical Run, Whirlwind worked for me on another level. I now regard it as the book I feel closer to. By the time of its printing, the author’s style was better honed, and the results were on display in this novel. His use of technology, along with the in and outs of the espionage culture, had hit full stride. Garber’s approach was way less dense than say Tom Clancy’s manner with the techno-thriller. As well, the novelist produced rich character dialogue, both within their heads and out their mouths, that literally jumped off the page.
“It all comes down to the same pig-stupid libertarian philosophy. Yeah, sure Johan Schmidt’s the personification of the free-market economy. He and his people are only in it for the money. Patriotism, duty, ordinary human decency — they’re irrelevant to that crowd. All they care about is cash on the barrelhead. The profit motive, my girl, is the most powerful motive there is. Once you understand that, you’ll understand how much danger you’re really in.”
So, too, you could see Garber’s comfort with the intrigue he placed in his plotting, as with his earlier bestselling novel. This was not classic literature, but it remain just plain fun to read. Whirlwind‘s story spanned the centers of power (Washington, DC), to the Navajo southwest (the book, in point of fact, is dedicated to his brother, a physician in the Indian Health Service), and on through to the California coast in its telling. He wove a tale filled with a good amount of cynicism toward the intelligence and military services, but always with a deft touch of humor.
It clearly milked historical (and up-to-that-time) presidential administrations as targets of opportunity as he told his story of a wrongly disgraced CIA field legend called back to duty by those who betrayed him.
And yes, this scenario was a familiar one for those who’ve read enough espionage thrillers in their time — Robert Ludlum of the 70s and the more realistic update Robert Littell offered by the 80s, come to mind. Yet, this author displayed a literate ease with the material, certainly with the characters, as he intertwined it all with some unexpected conspiracy. He definitely fielded some spectacular cursing and snarky dialogue along the way that’s all too damn quotable. Especially for his male readership.
The Whirlwind audiobook, in my estimation, benefitted greatly by lining up a narrator who could do it justice. Brilliance Audio selected veteran narrator and character actor Guerin Barry for the 2004 production. The 2005 Quill Award nominee was just the right reader for this endeavor, too. Like another favorite reader of mine, Ray Porter, Barry’s vocalization and accent skills really made the audiobook a pleasure to experience. As well as giving life to the old warhorse protagonist and his quarry.
The brilliant, wronged, and duly cantankerous Charlie McKenzie and the young, but oh so capable, Irina Kolodenkova (who is not the enemy here) sounded exactly as I would have pictured them.
So, too, are those aligned against the pair in the form of Sam (the National Security Advisor, who seemed to be a cross between Henry Kissinger and Lawrence Eagleberger as interpreted by author and narrator) and his South African henchman/mercenary Johan Schmidt. The latter comes right out of sadistic, mustache-twirling central casting. Barry nailed the smart-alecky delivery of Charlie, the venom and deceitfulness of the Beltway bureaucrat, and the high-opera villainy of Schmidt. Plus, he clearly had fun performing the characterizations, which came across more than well to this listener.
The Whirlwind novel garnered a reputation of being the “James Bond for the AARP set”. It is true that the novel does revel in the older age of its hero, but it’s not at the cost of the spy- and warcraft this author was very good at writing. I’d say, given my own maturity at this point, it helped to make the book work for me as a reader. Indeed, better understanding the wisdom and the mindset of Charlie’s character in the yarn. Whatever the slings and arrows he’d lived through, in a career that’s seen better days, he’s familiar to (ahem) ‘men of a certain age’ who’ve put in their time at whatever profession has called them.
Charlie could easily have been a stand-in for those of us who came before the Gen Xers (and later) in current society…even the ones circa 2004. We’re all replaceable, it’s a fact. You can see and understand it all better from this later vantage point and age. Equally, it’s a pleasant surprise when author Garber himself acknowledges this with references to the Greek hero Odysseus from The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Robert Jordan from Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, as he unfolds the tale. Not many summer thrillers can rightly quote those works, including the one below. This could.
This book, and audiobook, continues to work for me because it entertained the reader/listener and relished in the maturity of its hero. To all appearances, it was a sneak look behind the curtain of intelligence work and high technology. It’s easy to overlook. In the years the book has been out, some of its tech has not aged as well as one Charlie McKenzie. Like the rare coin pay phone, which still work and linger even in this day and age, McKenzie like us approaching retirement types. Both remembered and vanishing before our eyes. Apparently, we’re still capable, but now so outmoded… at least a few of us.
Joseph R. Garber captured it all, pretty damn well actually, in his final book. He would die of a heart attack less than a year after its release in 2005. Still, he gave the thriller genre, and its readers, a lift. With a small body of books that included some daring and inventive plotting, wit and humor, he delivered a good bit of old dog wisdom in the slyness of his character’s observations. He even managed to insert a small cameo of one Colonel Jack Kreuter for all us Vertical Run fans still out there, as well.
In the end, though, Garber’s espionage novel never forgot its heart. Because, like its aging cocksure principal, us guys are all hidden romantics, truth be told. All we old men want nothing more to do than protect those we love.
“She was not one of those limited creatures who are swept clean by a gust of wrath and left placid and smiling after its passing. She could store her anger in those caverns of eternity which open to every soul, and which are filled with rage and violence until the time comes when they may be stored into wisdom and love; for, in the genesis of life, love is at the beginning and the end of things.” ~ James Stephens, The Crock of Gold