Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Stuart Woods and Parnell Hall, Smooth Operator

Stuart Woods and Parnell Hall, Smooth OperatorPutnam, 2016
ISBN 978-0399-18526-7

Smooth Operator is definitely not my kind of book; I really don’t read thrillers much, and that’s definitely how I would categorize this one.  Co-written by Stuart Woods and Parnell Hall, it begins with Woods’ long-time (30+ books so far) series character, New York lawyer Stone Barrington, being hauled off a yacht in New York and flown to Washington to meet with the President.  Before he can even get to the White House, someone takes a shot at him.  The problem is that the daughter of the Speaker of the House has been kidnapped and the kidnappers are insisting that he (a conservative Republican) force a vote on a veterans’ benefit bill with no amendments and no riders.  (Why is a good question.)  Barrington calls in his old friend Teddy Fay, now (under the name Billy Barnett) a line producer working on a movie Barrington’s son is producing).  Fay is an ex-CIA agent with a dicey record.

After much travail, and an astounding body count, all ends more or less well.  As I said, this is not really my kind of book.  I found the characters, including Barrington, Fay and the principal bad guys, under-developed and one-dimensional.  (In general, and the authors deserve credit for this, the women in the book are all strong and capable people, including the Speaker’s kidnapped daughter, who never gives up on an escape.)  I had a particular problem with Fay, whose basic approach seems to be to kill whoever is in his way right now, without much in the way of thought and with absolutely no hesitation, consideration of alternatives, or remorse.  I just cannot identify with or feel that the character is serving some good end.

But what I had the most trouble with were a number of plot devices that just didn’t work for me.  I’m not going to go through all of them, but will mention just a couple.

Early on, a congressman is killed by a sniper, who (providentially) leaves a shell casing at the scene.  We subsequently get this report from a CIA forensic technician who is handling the analysis of the casing (I have omitted the CIA director’s part of the conversation, which is not really relevant:

“It’s Jenson at ballistics, sir.  I’m running tests on the shell casing found on the rooftop across the street…I noticed something I thought you’d want to know…The cartridge was standard CIA issue…It’s an exact match for the rounds we issue…”

Now, I find this implausible.  If I were running the CIA, I would not want the ammunition we used in out handguns and rifles to be easily identifiable (or identifiable at all) as CIA issue.  Absent the need for some unique sort of ammunition, I’d want to use plain, off-the-shelf ammo.  If for no other reason, it would mean that, should a CIA operative have to shoot at someone or something, the agent would not have to worry about collecting the shell casings.

But in many ways, the biggest problem is what seems to me to be a misunderstanding of how Congress—and the House of Representatives in particular—works.  The kidnappers want the Speaker to force a vote on a “clean” veterans’ benefits bill.  So, how does a bill get to the floor?  It gets drafted.  It gets referred to the relevant committee (or committees).  It gets worked over, possibly re-written or amended.  Then it is placed on the calendar for a vote.  The Speaker cannot just create a bill for a vote, or take an existing bill and re-write it.  And, given the way the House has been operating—and is shown to be operating in this book—there is no way a “clean” bill of this sort would be reported out of committee.  And even if it were, there’s the problem that the vote in the House does not send it to the President—there’s another House of Congress involved.  This sort of makes the kidnappers’ demand silly.  They demand that the Speaker do something that he literally cannot do, and, if one assumes for the immediate moment that their desire is to get the bill passed (it’s not, but that’s a different issue), getting it through the House is not the end.

There are a couple of other plot devices I had trouble with, because, in both cases, they conflicted with my understanding what one can find in an autopsy in one instance and what one can discover by tracking cell phone calls in another.

The narrative moves right along, though, and it’s certainly easy to continue reading it.  I believe this is the first book by Woods I have ever read.   Having met Parnell Hall, and had some pleasant conversations with him at mystery conventions (and having purchased all his mysteries), I hope the book does well and makes him rich.  But I really can’t recommend that anyone buy it.

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