Mark Terry

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Thoughts On "Enemy Combatant" by Ed Gaffney

May 1, 2008
The other day I was in one of my "book" moods, didn't know what to read--I knew what I planned to read, but I just wasn't in the mood for it, and I cast around on my bookshelves to see if anything caught my interest. I've got, as it turned out, 40 or 50 novels on my shelves I haven't read that looked promising (and another 70 or so that I'm donating to a local assisted-living facility that, although I'm sure fine books, just didn't appeal to me). I had slotted one aside called "Enemy Combatant" by Ed Gaffney, and I had never heard of Ed, although this was his 4th novel (yes, I feel some irony there, but anyway...) It had a capitol dome on the cover and a presidential seal and it sounded promisingly thriller-ish, so I started reading it.

And cranked through it in about 4 days.

by Ed Gaffney
Paperback original
Dell. $6.99

Here's a basic plot synopsis: There has been a terrible terrorist attack in Denver. The government has put Juan Abdullah Gomez on trial for conspiracy in the attack. The main character and narrator is Tom Carpenter, who typically is an appeals attorney. His father is a former prosecutor who has had a stroke and is partially paralyzed; his brother died in Afghanistan, his mother is dead, and he's almost-secretly in love with his sister-in-law and his niece.

Tom has a tradition, one begun by his father. On June 5th, he attends a trial. Why? That's the date of the Tiananmen Square (1989, in case you were wondering), which his father had brought to the attention of his 12-year-old son as being a case of astonishing bravery and a demonstration that things like that don't happen in the U.S. because of the courts and the Constitution.

But it's obvious to Tom that this trial is already getting off to a bad start. The Hispanic/Muslim man on trial has just gotten a totally white jury, his defense attorney is notoriously bad and the judge is even worse. In a bit of almost farcical drama, Tom jumps up and protests, and through a series of humorous events, finds himself appointed to be the Gomez's attorney.

Bad enough, but pretty soon he's getting two types of pressure: somebody's feeding him information and threatening him and his family; and another party is just threatening him and his family. And from there, everything goes to hell, there's a big conspiracy, lots of chases, etc.

I thought it was very entertaining, highly improbable, occasionally thought-provoking and in general, a whole lot of fun.

Now, a few writerly comments.

Gaffney starts most (not all) chapters with a reminiscence or flashback. I was a little startled by this, because I'm deathly afraid of flashbacks. Whenever I've put any flashbacks of length in my manuscripts, my agents and/or editors have cut them. Rule of thumb for thrillers is keep the motion moving forward. Yet Gaffney handles this well, using these as a way to interrupt escalating tension--he just does it at the right moment--and to illuminate the character. And he's very careful to circle back to many of these flashbacks later in the story, making complete sense as to why he gave you those flashbacks.

The second point is what you might call thematic material. It's not subtle, but it's what gives the book a certain kind of power. The Tianamnen Square flashback is very early in the novel. And it becomes clear by the end of the book that Tom is facing his own tanks on his own Square and some of them (though not actual tanks) are literally as dangerous as tanks, but metaphorically, the events may have the same resonance to the U.S. and the Constitution as the events of Tianamnen Square.

In short, he layers a lot into what is essentially a potboiler of of a novel. You can easily step back and say, "Yeah, but it's not just a page turner. It's about something."

So, with those thoughts, I'm going to highly recommend this novel.

Mark Terry


Blogger spyscribbler said...

How cool! I'm not much for a courtroom drama, but this sounds like a cool book.

And I really like reviews I can learn from, writing-wise.

7:00 AM  
OpenID eric-mayer said...

There's nothing I enjoy more than reading a good book -- a well received book -- in which the writer is doing something we've all been told we must not do!

7:04 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I'm not much into courtroom dramas either, and in fact, the courtroom parts in this book are only probably 3 or 4 short chapters. I liked this one a lot more than I expected.

I confess, Eric, that often the more I learn, the less I seem to know. There sure are a lot of "exceptions" to all the so-called rules of writing.

7:21 AM  
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