During our recent trip to Colonial Williamsburg, I stopped by the Williamsburg Booksellers and caught up with Edward Cline, the author of the Sparrowhawk novels. I thanked him for his work, and inquired about his other novels. He just happened to have a three volume series, novels of suspense, under the table. I inquired about the method of purchasing, at the store, on line. Oh, he would sell the three to me, for say, $15. I pulled out a $20 bill, to which he said, “Twenty would do”. Guess that will cover the taxes, huh? Well, I certainly would not begrude a living author a contribution to the arts. But, I am keeping you in supsence about the first of the series, Whipser the Guns.Merrit Fury is an Amercan export-inport businessman, who has travelled to Hong Kong in the mid-1970’s to attend to an investment holding of a small mining firm. Harry Briscoe has set up a company and attracted a number of partners to fund the operation. However, none of them are interested in actually making money on the mine. Thus, this business appears to be a front for somethings else. The next hundred plus pages of deception, wine-women-and-song, kidnappings, murders, politics, bank collapses, and economic dialetics will provide clues as to what the purpose of this business adventure really is… maybe.
Did I say, economic dialetics? Oh, yes. Mr. Cline weaves a tight story around the concept of “follow the money”. Few of these characters are concerned with pay cheques, but all are involved in directing the money their way. When the scheme is derailed by Fury’s discoveries and quick responses, the guns do more than whisper. Did I mention that martial arts and small arms practice are ways that he keeps fit?
Mr. Cline uses dialogue to set the pace of revealing clues to us. Yet, he is masterful at concise, clear descriptions of his characters and surroundings.
It suddenly dawned on the manager that this Mr. Merrit Fury, who looked to be abaout thrity, might be some kind of American law inforcement officer. He had sharp features, close-clipped but slightly wavey black hair, and a thin nose which made the manager think of cutting diamonds. He was definately what women would regard as handsome, not “pretty boy” handsome, but “rugged” handsome with “character” thrown in.
Later when Fury is at a meeting for the company, he observes Briscoe:
The man fascinated Fury. He was tall, trim, fit man in his late fifties or early sixities, very brisk in his speech and manners, but the thin that most commanded anyone’s attention was his face. There were hadsome faces and ugly ones, and faces one never noticed; Fury might have called Briscoe ugly if Briscoe was less of a man. It was a wide, expansive face whose bone structure was more noticiable than any of this other features, which seems to have been tacked on as an afterthought.
Put these two descriptions into a room, or a city, and trouble is bound to occur.
While most of the characters in the book are male, one woman secretly dominates their attention, Amber Lee:
She was Eurasian, with her features weighted on the Caucasian side. Wide cheekbones angled up form a grim, full mouth to capture a slender European nose and wide, almond eyes, which were curiously more Slavic than Oriental. Her face was barely oval, made less so by high, arching eyebrows. Her shoulder-length hair was auburn and curly, her skin the shade of burnished peach. He liked what she did for her face — almost nothing excet for some rouge and lipstick, and perhaps a touch of eyebrow pencil. It was a beautiful face, exotic face. And there was no trace of the inscrutable…
With descriptions like these, how could you not become a spectator in this tale? Regarding the plot, I shall not give much detail to avoid the risk of spoilers. However, I shall present some of the major themes behind the plot, for Mr. Cline regards these as the message that frames the wall paper, pictures, and furniture which conceal the whipsering guns. Mr. Cline’s major concern is about the struggle between freedom and governments’ inclination to become authoritarian and corrupted. Individuals either act to preserve their liberty, become enslaved by totalitarianism, or try to manipulate governments to their advantage. The hero is the freeman (who happens to be ruggedly handsome). The villians are the faceless bureaucrats and the ugly corruptors.
Some might dismiss the style of Whisper the Guns as dated in Cold War politics or a James Bond knock-off novel. Having been written and set in the 1970’s both critiques could have some validity. “Red” Chine, British espionage agencies, and the US congress all play roles in the book (the USSR lingers in the background as an escape clause). Fury has a great nack for pulling together clues that others only sees parts of, putting his hand together, and trumping the other players with each round, while making everything from a standing lamp to an automatic pistol a weapon, as need arises.
However, unlike Cold War era spy novels, Fury is not a government agent. He is the rugged individual who comes into the plot, not set up by a spy agency with lots of nameless intelligence data gatherers and lab technicians providing him with endless information and gizzmos. He has entered the business deal on his own accord, for his own advantage. He remains involved, as he begins to uncover the corruption, even when he could have sold out, and left to sell his chocolates and other products elsewhere. He has prepared himself to be observant and act violently for self-defense, not under a “license to kill”. He aligns himself with no government or organized crime syndicate.
Brisco looked solemn. “There’s nothing you can do to stop us, you know. It’s going to happen sooner or later. It’s in the cards, as you Americans would put it. Look at your own country. It’s already half-way down the yellow brick road to state economic management and guarenteed incomes and medical coddling and all the other frauds one can expect in such a situation.” He shook his head. “Don’t you see? Most people today have stopped concerning themselves with freedom and justice and all the other hallucinations and begun worrying about the power they think they ought to have over others to protect themselves from the ones who arlready have it. It’s a macabre circus, isn’t it? It also a demonstrable fact of history. Give an inch, and someone’s bound to take a foot, or take over, sooner or later. The power is either there for the taking, or it isn’t. If frightened little milquetoasts like our mutual partner Walter Pelosi can have access to mean little fools like Senators Booking and Denning, who have the power and the glory, then it must happen. If it weren’t for the power, all the milquetoats and fools of the world would have nothing better to do than pump petrol at filling stations or run second-rate haberdasheries.”
Ouch! And, that damnation of society came from one who uses this as a justification for abusing power. I might as well be the one who abuses power, lest I miss the opportunity or be the milquetoast person. But, Fury sees the falsehood in Briscoe’s assertion that one can either take power, or be taken: To Fury, there were two classes of evil: concsious, and mindless. The first, one could see and fight because it thrived on recognition. The other was the handmaiden of the first, but almost impossible to fight because when it wasn’t running from you, it was running from itself. And, fighting the conscious evil is what the freeman does, even to his own potential disadvantage and risk of death.
Emrick regarded Fury for a moment… “Once it became law, you could have made a bundle and nobody could’ve said boo to you. What made you take a knife to it?”
“Maybe I believe in a free country, Mr. Emrick,” said Fury, “one in which I don’t need the assistance of venal Congressmen to make a fortune.”
Emrick shook his head. “Patriotism doesn’t suit you. It’s the last thing I think of when I look at you.”
Finally, underlying all the character’s motivations is belief, whether those be based on objective or false premises. “… his lie is so old and vast and encompassing, that he has come to belive in most of it.” This of course, brings us back to the structure of a suspense novel. To keep us readers involved, the author must dispense bits of information and disinformation to keep us guessing about where the story is going and what has occured to bring these characters to this point of time. The characters are always a little ahead of us because they know, or believe they know, a little more than we do. Slowly, the author will drop hints and clues that bring us a closer to the conclusion that compels the freeman to stay with the story. Meanwhile we must try to figure out whom to trust.
“I have an idea”, said Fury, reaching for the decanter and pouring both their glasses, “that we would have met eventually. I smell design. So, I’m warning you: I don’t like being used. By anyone, for any reason.”
“I know, Mr. Fury,” Amber Lee picked up her glass and held it out for a toast, studying him, the countour of his face, his shoulders. “Here’s to you,” she said, “and to all my designs… You don’t mind being alone with me, do you?…”
Fury narrowed his eyes. “You’re a calculating lynx, and I’m not sure yet.”
He folded his hands in front of him and studied her face. In time, his mind’s finger was tracing the sharp line of of her cheeck, running up the side to pause on her temple and brush under her hair; then it swept up to her forehead, where it rested briefly, to move again down the gentle slope of her nose to her red lips, where it paused and felt downward jet of breath, the lips which opened, and then the finger moved over her chin and under it to a little hollow, where it pressed upward and tilted back the face.
“Tell me, Miss Lee –” he began.
“Amber,” she insisted, holding the eyes that touched her so.
“Tell me, Amber,” he began again, “would you concur that an economy is commititing suicide in which the purshcase and sale of government securities are given far better tax treatment than the investments in genuinely productive private issues?”
“What an odd question to ask now. But, yes, I would concur.”
“It’s as dry a questions I can ask at this moment….”
Should you find yourself seduced toward someone whom you do not know whether to trust, that ecomonic dialetic is always a good strategy to pull out of your hoster. But, be prepared to be in suspense until pistols of other sorts become the weapons of choice. Meanwhile, should you chat with Mr. Cline at his Sunday book signings be sure to have a $20 bill to pull out of your hoster, should you be ready for suspense.