Monthly Archives: August 2014

Spies Writing Spy Novels

I picked up Jeanne Kinkade’s novel “The Zero Line” based on two factors that intrigued me: one, at least part of the novel was set in Ellicott City, Maryland,GetSmart and environs which is familiar to me and two, in her biography she is a self-confessed former intelligence agent who worked at the National Security Agency (NSA).  She goes on to boast that she has worked closely with other three-letter agencies (CIA, FBI, etc.) and written think pieces on troublesome intelligence questions, such as the whereabouts of Usama bin Laden (before his capture.) So, when I read the plot synopsis featuring an exciting turn of events in Pakistan, I was on-board for a spy thrill ride.  Sadly, her plot and characters did not live up to (my) expectations.  The story opens with a married couple, Polly and Mitch McKenna, uncovering a mysterious hidden compartment in an old clock purchased in Ellicott City.  A series of events leads them to believe the clock’s former owner was involved in double-agent activities during the Cold War.  A second spy-themed plot line involves a Pakistani extremist planning to kidnap and kill a Marine and release sarin in a crowded city.  All potentially very exciting but the story does not deliver.  The author gives us some hints about our main characters–Polly and Mitch–but fails to fully develop them so that they come off as two-dimensional and I, as a reader, found that I did not care a whole lot about what happened to them.  Polly is supposedly a former intelligence field officer, but her husband doesn’t know it.  I found it a bit hard to believe because she comes across as a nitwit sometimes;– for example, a major storm is raging across her town and she waits until the transformer blows before locating a flashlight.  The author also never follows up on this thread of her former employment.  Mitch has his troubles as well.  He is suffering crippling guilt over an unexplained incident which resulted in the deaths of fellow marines.  This guilt is sabotaging his marriage, but neither the original incident nor how the couple overcomes it is sufficiently explored.  Also, at the end of the book two former Marine friends facing life-threatening circumstances lapse into an unrealistic joking banter a la buddy action movies such as Die Hard.  I can believe making a few wise cracks under pressure, but this felt out of step with the seriousness of the rest of the story.  My other disappointment was that I was expecting much more insider intelligence descriptions and know-how…I wanted a lot more technical wiz-bang from a former NSAer.  There was no real spycraft to speak of in the story.  That being said, the author did a good job describing Pakistan–particularly the congested city of Peshawar and the desolate high mountain regions and FATA.  The locale added a great deal to the story and I believe one of the strongest scenes in the book was one involving a reluctant extremist setting off a chemical weapon within a crowded cyber cafe, describing his conflicted emotions and regret.  It looks like Kinkade has a sequel planned, and that may close some gaps.  The first book was attractively produced with a nice cover, but had some editing problems including strange characters in the e-book version.

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