The Valley of Shadows
“. . . unless hierarchies like DHS and DNI get a lot better at fighting narco-terrorist networks, the scenario depicted in The Valley of Shadows may even make a cameo appearance in a city close to you—sooner than you might imagine.”
I read a third of Mark Terry’s 300-page national security potboiler, The Valley of Shadows, before really getting into it. (One possible culprit: Fedex, which took two weeks to “overnight” my review copy.)
The book’s hero is Derek Stillwater, a continuing character from the author’s earlier thrillers. Having read none of those books, Mr. Stillwater’s credentials jumped out at me: Retired Army Colonel and recipient of a Ph.D. The accompanying NYJB reviewer webpage lists those same credentials for me: but only the most vivid imagination could translate them into action-hero qualifications. Maybe that is why I don’t work as a troubleshooter for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as Derek Stillwater does. His is clearly a full-time job, which he routinely handles by exceeding his authority, trampling civil liberties, and beating up anyone getting in his way—a Stillwater that apparently doesn’t run deep.
OK, most of the bad guys probably deserved the hero’s wrath since they’re fundamentalist Pakistanis, terrorists, or both. After the first explosion on page five, Stillwater is soon up to his bulletproof vest, countering an Al Qaeda-Pakistani plot to conduct a multi-pronged 9/11-TAKE II on the eve of the American presidential election. Mr. Terry insures the reader understands Terrorist Motivation 101 with dialogue like this:
“You are an infidel. An agent of the Great Satan.”
Fareed stared at him, mouth twisted in a sneer. “Don’t speak to me of Allah. You know nothing of Allah’s will.”
“I know Allah let me live for a reason.”
“To bear witness to the destruction of infidels. Allah is great. Allah is wise.”
Ah yes, but so too are the American authorities who quickly disburse to discover which of the nefarious Al Qaeda plots is the main attack and which are diversions. Without any apparent irony, Mr. Terry writes:
“Okay, here’s the plan then. We have formed multiagency Special Terrorism Activity Response Teams from the bureau, Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. . . . Each member has a particular expertise relevant to terrorism activity. . . . Each team will go to those cities and consult and work with the various bureau and DHS offices in . . . stopping these attacks from happening.”
With such a convoluted organizational lash-up, Al Qaeda would be the only safe bet—even in a medium defined by our willing suspension of disbelief.
But here is where Mr. Terry can fairly be criticized for failing to understand The Way Things Really Are in the American security hierarchy. For one thing, the DHS, the protagonist’s home agency, is really a top-heavy federal bureaucracy rather than an operational agency deploying troubleshooters—however much the agency occasionally pretends otherwise. Its bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, is a wonderfully bad-assed exception, but the bulk of American homeland defense rests on the shoulders of overworked and undermanned local authorities, not federal bureaucrats.
Moving on, Stillwater’s conflicted love interest is Cassandra O’Reilly—“Blonde hair to her shoulders, blue eyes the color of gunmetal and an expression somewhere between rage and disgust”—and also another wretched Ph.D. Although this is a book notable for neither romantic interludes nor ironic asides, readers may wonder about Dr. O’Reilly’s presence in Los Angeles—where the attack unfolds—considering that she possesses credentials issued by Washington’s Directorate of National Intelligence. The DNI is even less an action-based agency than DHS. Its sole function: to achieve minimal coordination among the 15 or 16 agencies comprising the National Intelligence Community. Yet the DNI’s agencies lack common travel agents or zip codes, much less any conceivable operational jurisdiction outside the Capitol Beltway.
All the more reason to applaud Mr. Terry’s unexpectedly brilliant conclusion: The treacherous Pakistanis turn out to have hatched the entire plot.
“How deep is the rot in your government anyway?” one outraged American official roars at the end. “Is this going to be like how you dealt with A. Q. Khan? The bastard sold nuclear secrets to every . . . dictatorship on the planet. You slap his hand . . . because he’s a . . . national hero?”
Despite Mark Terry’s inexact grasp of American government realities, these are excellent questions. They are made even more so because he had no way of knowing that life would soon imitate art with the raid in 2011 that killed Osama within spitting distance of Pakistan’s military elites.
So expect this book—a fair-to-middlin’ thriller and beach-reading mind candy—to emerge soon in paperback—maybe even as one of those B-grade movies running late at night on cable television.
And unless hierarchies like DHS and DNI get a lot better at fighting narco-terrorist networks, the scenario depicted in The Valley of Shadows may even make a cameo appearance in a city close to you—sooner than you might imagine.