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The 13th Target by Mark de Castrique

Having just come down from reading a major, rather densely written fantasy tetralogy, I’ve hit remarkably lucky with The 13th Target by Mark de Castrique (Poisoned Pen Press, 2012). This is, quite simply, a wonderful straight-line political thriller. It has an elegant plot and the execution is pitch perfect. I could stop here but, as those of you who read these reviews will recognise, I’m incapable of letting something go once I’ve started to write about it.

For me, the major problem with many modern thrillers is the superficiality of the plot. We meet our hero. It’s usually a tough male, albeit soft round the edges and getting on in years, i.e. he’s old enough to know better but gets sucked into danger because of those soft edges. He’s either endowed with supernatural fighting skills or possessed of enough weaponry to sink a battleship (and any nearby aliens as well). Should he have the misfortune to be beaten up or tortured, he’s stoical and, after the application of a bandaid and a stiff drink, he’s fighting above his weight for the world championship. Usually, our hero walks innocently into a situation. As a PI, a client may randomly pick his name out of the phonebook or he may just be in the wrong place at the wrong time (as it were). The first reaction is either cherchez la femme or follow the money. Then, before you can say [insert appropriate word with many syllables], he’s up to his neck in sharks trying to chew off his leg and anything else free-floating. Naturally, he escapes and, after shooting off several heavy-duty guns, not quite being on the receiving end of explosions and drinking several cups of tea, we have a revelation that it was the guy in the green hat masterminding the entire thing. Put another way, if there’s a choice between plot and characterisation, the pace of the storytelling wins and the characters must simply fit into the pattern of events even though their credibility grows increasingly suspect. Once you’ve read one of these “things”, you start ticking off the different variations. Some have more or less sex. Some involve major political players and scandals to rock the White House or House of Commons or House on the Prairie if you prefer something wilder. There can be drugs or gangs fighting over the loot from robberies. But, in a sense, none of these substantially change the core plot which has our bulletproof hero ducking and weaving until he can deliver the knockout blow.

Mark de Castrique following in Carl Sandburg’s footsteps

The plot of The 13th Target, however, is of a completely different order of magnitude. It’s an intelligent take on the controversy over the role of the Federal Reserve in America. Every country has both a political department charged with trying to balance the books and a national bank. Sometimes, the bank is just a tool of the Treasury. But in some countries, the national bank is an independent agency of government, i.e. it works within broad guidelines laid down by government, but is not directly accountable to the politicians for day-to-day decisions. The Fed has three core mandates and a significant number of duties making it “independent within government”. There’s Congressional oversight but, essentially, the Fed can do what it likes and without having to disclose its actions. Indeed, this lack of transparency is at the heart of this novel. If the public had a right to know what the Fed is doing with its money, a number of other governments, international organisations, national organisations, and individuals might be embarrassed. The Fed might then face reform or, indeed, abolition.

Against this background, we have a primary hero and two important sidekicks. Two of the three are relatively old, the other a couch potato. Worse, they are capable of holding intelligent conversations rather than handguns which they might just use to shoot everyone wearing a green hat on a precautionary basis. I was waiting to see if any of our trio would actually pick up a gun in anger, awarding negative hero points as the plot developed without the good guys shooting people. It was deeply satisfying that neither sidekick fired a gun. Even better, we have a twin narrative track which shows the planning and execution of the dastardly plot. We see enough of the initial plan and then how it must be modified to keep pace with developments in the field. As the author of the plan is quick to recognise, SNAFU always applies and anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. The plot must therefore be positive in its aims, but sufficiently flexible in its execution to allow for the anticipated FUs. I should explain the reason for this review’s focus on plots. The man tasked with running this criminal operation is a thriller writer with many of his books translated and sold around the world. He’s an expert in manipulating events on paper to get to the desired outcome. Although we should perhaps note that, quite often, his books end up remaindered. Curious. I wonder why that is. Structurally, this almost makes the book metafictional, i.e. it shows an author at work in one narrative thread creating the responses to the action in the other narrative thread. But this is presented descriptively so it ends up merely showing some nice ironies.

Anyway, The 13th Target is an elegant, stripped-down piece of writing with no superfluous words other than as required to discuss the heavy-weight issues of constitutional law and international finance. When not in the higher intellectual realms, the plot charges along with our hero following the money trail and finding bodies with his name obviously chalked in as the killer. Eventually, he understands why he’s being set-up as the fall guy and demonstrates a pleasingly proactive approach to saving himself and the 13th target. For once when reading a political thriller, I was hugely entertained and finished with a big smile on my face.

For a review of another book by Mark de Castrique, see A Murder in Passing.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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