W.E.B. Griffin is a prolific and phenomenally successfull author having authored well over a hundred novels under different names. He writes what can be best described as “military fiction”, relating the deeds of American servicemen both on the battlefield and in the covert war against our nation’s enemies. Black Ops is the fifth novel in the Presidential Agent series and chronicles the continuing saga of Lt. Col. Charley Castillo who heads a clandestine outfit , the Office of Oraganizational Analysis, and reports directly to the President. At the beginning of the novel, an investigative reporter looking into the German and Russian thieves involved in the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal is brutally murdered in Marburg , Germany. Almost simaltaneously, there are assassination attempts on U.S. agents and allies in Philadelphia and Argentina. All these targets are linked to Charley Castillo and his investigation of the Oil scandal. This leads to the suspicion that he himself is next on the hit list. While attending the funeral of the slain reporter, Castillo fortuitously meets a brother-sister pair of Russian spies, Dmitri Berezovsky and Svetlana Alekseeva who are desperate to defect to the West. Castillo makes a quick decision to accomodate their monetary demands and spirits them away from Germany. Through them he learns of a secret factory being set up in the depths of the Congo, a factory that could very well be manufacturing Weapons of Mass Destruction.The rest of the novel describes how Castillo and his agents follow up the lead ,determine the nature of the threat and who is behind it and nip it in the bud. Complicating matters are the interservice rivalries and jealousies that are endemic in our spy agencies. In achieving his objectives, Charley Castillo has to fight not only against the bad guys but also the CIA and his nominal boss Charles Montvale , the director of National Intelligence. The CIA is mad at Castillo because their agents had been about to pick up the Russians themselves when Charley beat them to it.As for Montvale, he has always been jealous of Charley Castillo’s direct access to the President and tries to obstruct him at every turn. To make matters worse, the CIA has already discounted the Congo threat and is more interested in defending its conclusions rather than keeping an open mind about mounting evidence that the threat is for real. The action shifts between various safehouses in Argentina and the U.S as Castillo and his merry men- a mix of former FBI, CIA, Secret Service and military men- try to keep one step ahead of Montvale and the CIA while trying to get incontrovertible proof that the Congo factory is a threat to the U.S and must be destroyed forthwith. And ,oh yes… Castillo accomplishes all this while managing to fall in love with the gorgeous Russian spy , Svetlana.
Griffin has an unparalleled knowledge of military jargon and the administrative wrting style. It is no wonder because he served in the military after the Second World War and also during the Korean war. He was stationed in Germany for several years and is married to an Argentine woman which makes his descriptions of Germany and South America ( particularly Argentina but also Uruguay ) very authentic sounding.With his detailed descriptions of weaponry, his true-blue All-American heroes and his dastardly villains , it is no surprise that his novels are a hit , particularly with male readers. In the past, I was initially among his legions of fans but his latest novel has little to recommend it.
It does have his trademark writing style and a plausible plot but its biggest failing is that it has absolutely no action sequences. What little action there is happens off-camera. For most of 500 pages , Castillo and his men are trying to stay one jump ahead of Montvale and the CIA while trying to verify the existence of the deadly factory in the Congo. There is almost no character development ; Charley and his men are mere ciphers. They are all are impossibly brave and patriotic , heroic and … and … they have a sophomoric sense of humor. They are constantly cracking wise , playing practical jokes,making up stupid nicknames and giving each other the finger. For instance , Charley Castillo codenames the Russian spy Little Red Britches because he gets a long glimpse of her underpants as she is escaping from a train.Later on, he nicknames her Sweaty ( short for Svetlana) and still later Simple Susan. This is supposed to be funny ? Also, the accounts of interservice rivalry are caried to such extremes that they are hard to believe.
In the increasingly complex world that we live in, I suppose that some of us yearn for a simpler world in which everything is black or white and there are no shades of gray, no ambiguities. A world in which the good guys always win even against impossible odds and the bad guys always lose. Such people find Griffin’s novels great reading though even they will be hard put to like Black Ops.
Black Ops by W.E.B.Griffin. Published by G.E.Putnam’s Sons ( New York) ,2008. $ 26.95.