Post-Modernist Bilge

In my Chosen Words post from earlier this week (3/16) on the difficulty of writing about what the conspirators in the Imogen Trager books want, I said, “the bright line between fact and fiction, party and faction, virtue and vice is growing dim.”

DarkNet.ad-poster-WITHOUT LAWIn the name of verisimilitude (and telling a good story), I’ve been struggling to get right the atmospherics of our time; to isolate and describe the tactics and threat posed by reactionaries. I wonder at how close I seem to be coming. In that same post, I noted the novels are “about Power,” and that where there is no law, there’s only power.

Today, two front page articles in the NY Times discuss both of my major themes:

How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions
“Rules don’t matter for them. For them, this is a war, and it’s all fair.” (Christopher Wylie)

Trump and the Truth: A President Tests His Own Credibility
“Advisors say privately that Mr. Trump may not always be precise but is speaking to a larger truth that many Americans understand….To them, the particular facts do not matter as much as this deeper truth.”

This is post-modernist bilge, of a kind rightly derided on the left and right. When the rule of law is nakedly abandoned, when all facts are dismissed as subjective—as having an agenda—when truth is “provisional,” when learning and expertise are assaulted, we’re left with Power as the only true north; and power does not seek the best and brightest, nor the good to its cause; but rather the chancers, hucksters, opportunists, nihilists. Corruption is their by-word.  They leave destruction, misery (and in my books, death) in their wake.

It’s not that I’m reading the newspapers and—collage-style—cobbling together a plausible, dystopian thriller series. Our current state has been years—and millions of dollars!—in the making.  The Imogen Trager series has likewise been growing (albeit with a fraction of the monetary support).

I wrote the rough draft of Faithless Elector in 2000. It had been knocking around in my head for some years prior to that, but the Bush-Gore election demonstrated how finely poised our democracy had become.  Subsequent national elections continue to expose the problems of the Electoral College.

Since then, the threat from reactionaries has grown and has proved to be all-too real.  I followed up Faithless with Dark Network (conceived in 2015-16), about, among other things, problems at the FBI.  I’m generally worried about what I’ll inadvertently get right with this last book.

 JMc-author2.2017James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The final book in the series, is due our at the end of this year.

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center 

 

 

When Ideologies Collide – The Imogen Trager Novels

“Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience.” –Adam Smith

Dark Network, the second Imogen Trager novel, follows up on the “gripping” thriller, Faithless Elector. The quote above, from Adam Smith, is the epigraph for Dark Network.  It serves to underline the posture of both sides in the book, and it points up the dangers of the stark polarization we see in the real world: people who think they’re right (virtuous) rarely question what they do or why they do it; whereas those who admit to themselves that what they’re doing is wrong (vice) at the very least have qualms and need to justify what they do.Fe-DarkNet

In Dark Network, the bright line between fact and fiction, party and faction, virtue and vice is growing dim. Imogen Trager, the determined heroine of Faithless Elector returns, desperate to stop a murderous dark network intent on seizing the presidency. Once in the White House, with a pliant Attorney General and a do-nothing Congress there will be nothing to stop them.

But first they have to get there.

Taken together—or separately (both thrillers were created to stand alone; there’s no homework required!)—they’re stories about individual courage in the face of adversity, and about what we become in the process. Imogen will have to confront her own outlook as she chases the conspirators. The ultimate question becomes not only, will Imogen stop them seizing the presidency, but what kind of America will be left, even if she does? As she crosses the line between the need for action and her own morals and beliefs (“Imogen stared at the table top, wondering which Constitutional right she would be complicit in violating today. But just as quickly came a flash of anger. Deptford was  conspiring to subvert the electoral process and corrupt the Constitution. Now he wanted it to protect him?“), she begins to worry she’s facing a juggernaut that nothing can stop.

Dark Network is about power. The umbral conspirators are bent on taking power for themselves at the expense of everything we hold dear. The chilling, dark recognition at the heart of the plot is that the conspirators would say they were seizing power in order to preserve everything we hold dear. They are doing the right thing, they would say…for us. And people who think they’re doing the right thing are rarely troubled by scruples or conscience.

The tension for the characters in the novel centers on how far they are prepared to go in defense of their principles before they have abandoned them all.

While the thrillers Faithless Elector (March 2016), and its sequel, Dark Network (Oct. 2017) take current events as their impetus and resonate with the daily outrages and machinations of our time, they are first and foremost taut, plot-driven stories. They contend with themes that endure after the headlines have faded and events in the real world appear to have moved on. The latent weaknesses so plausibly exploited by the conspirators still exist.

The Imogen Trager stories are about courage, duty, fidelity and ideology: and what happens when those qualities and ideologies collide.

In Faithless Elector, a small, deadly efficient conspiracy seeks to overturn the result of a close election by getting a number of Electors to switch their votes, to become “faithless electors.”  The conspirators operate in the shadows, but it’s getting late in the day and the shadows are lengthening.

In Dark Network, it becomes clear that the conspirators are still trying to influence the outcome.  The protagonist, FBI Agent Imogen Trager, must fight against time, a sinister network–even her own colleagues–to find out who’s still trying to steal the election and stop them. There’s barely a month until the inauguration…

 JMc-author2.2017James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center 

It’s not yet two o’clock…

I’ve been thinking about moments lately as I push on toward the ending of my third Imogen Trager novel. The point of a dramatic moment is that it destroys the equilibrium that existed an instant before. At the beginning of a story, things are as they are. They may be bad or good from the point of view of the main character, but there is some sense that this is how things are, how they’ve been and will be.

And then something happens.

That something requires a choice—either go forward or retreat; follow the clues or bury your head in the sand. These moments represent a place from which the hero(ine) can’t go back – even if they’d like to do so.  Like Adam and Eve, after the fall: you can’t unknow something, can’t undo what’s happened. Gatsby is famously shaken by the sight of Daisy and Tom’s little daughter—it’s all well and good believe you can repeat the past, but quite another thing when you’re confronted with a living, breathing manifestation of why you can’t. Moments are the heart of drama, and character will be revealed in the conflict that ensues.

In the novel 1984 Winston Smith decides to keep a journal, bringing him to the Party’s 4 booksnotice; in The Quiet American, the cynical Fowler meets the destructive innocent Alden Pyle; Ricky Tarr turns up with evidence of a mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy; Nick Carraway meets Gatsby. In Faithless Elector, Matthew Yamashita finds an unexplained number of deaths among electors. In Dark Network, Imogen Trager finds that the conspiracy is still at work, still trying to win.

For my characters, the need is to restore equilibrium (and the rule of law). These stories were never meant to be prophetic, but taut thrillers playing out a distressingly plausible scenario. As I’ve written elsewhere , these fictional stories have sailed just a bit too close to the wind. As I work toward the end of this third book, I worry again about what I’ll get right.

Fe-DarkNet

Because moments don’t exist only in fiction. William Faulkner has written that every Southern boy can conjure in his imagination that moment when “it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863” at Gettysburg, and everything is still possible. I re-read the passage recently, and it’s brilliant. It’s a meditation on whether the course to destruction had been set earlier and this was just one act along that road, or whether Pickett’s charge was the moment that set them on that road.

The nation is poised upon a moment. We know only that Mueller has filed indictments, is taking testimony. Will what the investigation reveals stabilize the status quo, or will it throw the nation further into upheaval? Is the coming moment one of destruction or resurrection? And for whom?

It’s not yet two o’clock, and many things are possible.

 JMc-author2.2017James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  Find them through Indybound.org.  

They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center 

Shakespearian Guilt

Reality threatens to outpace imagination, and I worry that justice and guilt are becoming quaint notions

Michael Smerconish writes today in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the silence (and poor sales) that come from writing ahead of the curve of opinion and understanding.  (I feel your pain, Michael!)Smerconish

His novel, TALK is about the rise of a right-wing radio host who has qualms about how he makes a living and what his actions are doing to the body politic.  When Smerconish published the book in 2014, he says, it was called “far-fetched,” “unrealistic” and “could never happen in America.”  Those who rejected my first book Faithless Elector during my wilderness years said pretty much the same things, adding: “no one knows or cares about the Electoral College.”  I think they do now.

What strikes me as I read about TALK and think about my own works, Faithless Elector and Dark Network, is that the outlines for our current situation have been in place for a long time.  It took only an effort of imagination to see where things were going and how it might turn out.  I continue to work on the final book in the trilogy and delve into who the conspirators really are and what they want.  But as I strive to understand them and write them, I find I have to abandon the current, anguished state of politics as (un)usual once again–this time in favor of a stark, vindictive reality.

This time, reality threatens to outpace imagination.  As I challenge and query the plot points and action in the current draft, as I fret over motivations, I worry that my own imagination may not have stretched far enough.  Maybe it requires a new perspective.

In TALK, it seems the protagonist Stan Powers is troubled with guilt.  In my books the protagonists are propelled by a sense of justice for its own sake, and–in the case of Duncan Calder–as retributive.  I worry that such notions may be quickly becoming quaint.

I titled this blog piece “Shakespearian Guilt” because whether we’re familiar with Shakespeare’s villains, we understand the feelings of guilt that accompany heinous acts.  Richard III is visited by ghosts of those he murdered, and they curse him:  “think on me, despair, and die,” they say.  Macbeth is accused by ghosts, Henry IV feels the need to atone for usurping Richard II’s throne.  We understand it, and we feel better that these characters are miserable, despite their high status.  But what happens when they’re not troubled, when they have no qualms?  The epigram for Dark Network hinted at it:  “Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience” (Adam Smith).

For those who’ve read the books, I see the dark network conspirators as baffled that events have come to this bloody head (a few well placed bribes should have taken care of it); they’re appalled by the body count that’s piling up across the books, but not because there’s blood on their hands, but because it’s untidy, public.  Feeling mortified that it has come to this, doesn’t mean they can’t sleep at night, or that quiet moments are troubled with doubt.  Far from it. They’re doing the right and virtuous thing; and such men never question themselves or their motives.  If they win, it’s because the angels were on their side.  If they lose, the forces of darkness have won…but only for now.

 JMc-author2.2017James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network. Find them through Indybound.org.  

They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center 

Downtown revitalization management is perfect training for writing thrillers

In the past, I’ve joked that there’s a well-worn path between downtown revitalization non-profits and writing thrillers…because let’s face it, there isn’t. Lately, as I think about it, I’m not so sure it’s a joke.

My former jobs were perfect training for writing thrillers.

MysteriousAffair.panel

A Mysterious Affair in Princeton

Recently, I was a late addition to a panel at “A Mysterious Affair in Princeton” put on by the Cloak & Dagger bookstore, which was a fantastic “affair,” with great speakers and a very nice turnout of mystery-thriller readers who had insightful questions.

The day’s final speaker was SJ Rozan, best known for the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series and other mysteries. Her talk revolved around why people are drawn to mysteries and thrillers.

Screen Shot 2017-11-17 at 12.18.50 PM

SJ Rozan

She began by discussing “ur” stories, or essential narratives, that we tell ourselves over and again. The job of mysteries, she said, going back to their essence as “ur” stories, “is to provide an explanation” for what happened in an otherwise arbitrary, indifferent world.

The essence of a thriller, she noted, my ears pricking up farther, is simply: “is there enough time?” Can the hero(es) stop the ticking bomb or thwart the bad guys? What will it take to stop it?

As good as her talk was, I’m afraid I started thinking a lot about thrillers and stopped listening. My thrillers are indeed predicated on timing. In Faithless Elector, the tension concerns whether the heroine and hero can get the information out in time to stop the conspiracy, and in Dark Network, they’re confronted with a plot no one initially believes exists. In both cases, if the presidency is stolen—as we’re seeing now in the real world—it’s next to impossible to effect meaningful change after the fact.

This past week, I applied for a part-time job with a commercial district management organization. As I worked on my cover letter, wondering how much (or even if!) I should discuss writing novels as the reason for my hiatus from the world of non-profits, I found myself thinking about what leadership of a non-profit entailed.

downtown.revitalzIt turns out, managing a commercial district is perfect training for thrillers. Not that death and mayhem are ever part of the work, thankfully, but the planning and execution is eerily similar to plotting a thriller.

First, (Act One, let’s call it) there is a cast of characters in any district. In order to be effective, the district manager must know who the main players are, who the ancillary players are, how they interact and what it is they want. Scene setting, exposition. Often what they want is at odds with what others want, and they will coalesce into mini interest groups—Conflict!

And then something happens to disrupt the equilibrium (such as it is). Information that wasn’t meant to come to light is revealed, or someone is murdered…or there is a block grant available. Which takes us to Act Two.

Act Two, then, is where the main character encounters obstacle after obstacle toward achieving his/her goal of exposing the conspiracy or beginning a façade improvement program. Anyone who has worked in non-profit/local government will recognize this trope, and any such person might be forgiven for having daydreamed a timely murder or two.

Act Two sees the “first culmination” wherein it looks like the hero(ine)/district manager will achieve their goal. Inevitably, everything falls apart, leading to the “midpoint,” where it seems all hope is lost.

This leads naturally to Act Three, and the “climax” –the point of maximum tension where the opposing forces confront one another (Board meeting, anyone?). Act Three, then, shows how the world/commercial district returns to equilibrium having successfully navigated the obstacles—or failed miserably.

It’s the ending, however, where the non-profit and the fictional worlds diverge.  The thriller writer Tom Clancy once famously said:  “The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.”  He might just as easily have been talking about the difference between non-profit district management and thrillers.

 

JMc-author2.2017

 James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.

Find them through Indybound.org.
They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

 If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center

Dark Network

I wrote Dark Network for people who crave a smart story–particularly thriller and mystery fans.  Publishers Weekly has compared it to the work of David Baldacci and Brad Meltzer, which was awfully kind.

While the story isn’t precisely about what’s going on now, much less a treatise on the role of dark money in politics, the fact is both Dark Network and Faithless Elector draw upon, and were shaped by, the time in which there were written as anti-democratic forces began casting their long shadows across the political landscape.  If you read them, you’ll find yourself looking at the circus in new ways.

DARK Network-Money pic

Scenes we’d like to see

You’ll also see the stakes beyond the daily noise and outrage. As well entertained, you’ll be rejuvenated. Though conceived and written in the midst of crisis, these stories aren’t about the malaise of now; they aren’t about giving up.  They’re about more or less ordinary people finding a way to act, to push back.

I think it’s a story we all need right now.

I started writing it in February of 2016, when some of what the books still seemed a bit far-fetched. Around that time, I described the novel’s plot and talked about the conspirators to a friend when she asked what I was working on.  She listened and then said the title reminded her of something she’d read about.  I was unnerved.

I worried that I’d put thought and effort into something that would be viewed as derivative or as riding on the coattails of someone else’s work.

A week or so later, the same friend emailed me about Jane Mayers’ Dark Money, which had just come out. “This is what I was thinking of the other day,” she wrote.  I was relieved. Mayer’s book was journalism, a work of non-fiction.  Mine was a work of fiction, and while the titles themselves were similar, mine referred to the term applied to terrorist networks, drug cartels and other organized crime groups.

But when I finally read Mayer’s book, while I was finishing edits on Dark Network, I realized we were pointing at many of the same things, if not the same precise people–mine are fictional characters, after all.  Nevertheless, her book and my books are animated by the same fear that a small group would seize power by exploiting (and in Mayer’s telling, creating!) weaknesses and loopholes.

You should see for yourself.

JMc-author2.2017

 James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network. Find them through Indybound.org.  

They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

 If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center

Fake News Snares: Niger, Benghazi

I was paralyzed with self-loathing that I might have just done something I (rightly) deplored.

Recently on Facebook, I copied and reposted a piece about the deaths of the four US soldiers in Niger.  A good friend had put it on his Facebook page.

horrific.FB.blogI read the post and was outraged.  I copied, pasted and posted…adding “horrific” to the lead-in.

I felt it was important to do so.  The message of the post seemed particularly important to me as something that cut through the noise of the issue: that the current president’s bewildering and reprehensible handling of the aftermath—while dismaying and frankly sickening—was a distraction; that there was more going on.

The issues in the post were:

  • We had ignored (or had not consulted!) our intelligence experts;
  • Our troops have been systematically neglected and undermined;
  • Communication is abysmal or nonexistent.
  • Years of outsourcing key portions of military operations (for private gain) and years of scrimping on equipment have left our fighting men and women exposed to greater danger than they already would be.
  • As a result, four soldiers are dead.

A number of Facebook friends “liked” the post and shared it.  Two friends, however, asked me what the source(s) were.  They were themselves aghast at the criminal level of ineptitude described in the post, but the points about contractors and the French was new information, and they wanted to understand its provenance before reposting themselves.

Which is what I should have done.

The insidiousness of fake news is that it can work directly as dis-information; and, more subtly, it can also serve to undermine the very notion of truth.  In the past, I’ve been more than happy to repost the debunking of fallacious stories propagated by reactionary wingnuts.

In this instance I was paralyzed with self-loathing that I might have just done something I (rightly) deplore just because it fit the kinds of things that make me angry.  Because if I had just reposted something dubious, I was giving reactionaries a cudgel with which to strike at the battered and bloodied notion of truth, where they could say, “See? No one has regard for the truth. It’s just as we [the reactionaries] say:  it’s all about your perspective and outrage…and everyone does it.”

I started tracing the story—now well after the fact.  It seems to have started on a man named Bob Lamb’s Facebook page.  I saw it picked up in the comments/forum section on Talking Points Memo (TPM), which referred to him.  From there, it bounced around, and was reposted by me…and others.

I regret reposting what seems now to be “truthy.”

Here is the full text of the post.  The notes in square brackets are mine.

While everyone is so busy talking about Trump’s handling of his call to the widow of the soldier killed in Niger, you’re all missing the important part of that story — the part about what happened that night in Niger.

The story that is emerging is so much worse than anything that happened in Benghazi, but the same GOP Congress that investigated Benghazi with a fury seems to have little or no interest in this story.

Here’s what we know so far:

These soldiers went to a meeting in an area near the border with Mali. This is a well known hot spot for ISIS activity. [true. this is backed up by everything I’ve now read.]

Our soldiers were not backed up by US Military air support. No, they were backed up by the French, who were not authorized to intervene or even fire a shot. [this was the original reporting, but it now seems that the French pilots were not asked to engage out of fear of “friendly fire.”]

Our soldiers did not have armored vehicles. They traveled in pickup trucks. [true]

Our soldiers were given faulty intel that said “it was unlikely that they would meet any hostile forces.” Of course, they walked into an ISIS ambush. It was chaotic and they took three casualties. [this is an odd part: the various reports say the soldiers knew it was an ISIS hotspot and had gone to the village to speak with one of the village elders.]

It took the French 30 minutes to arrive. [they were called in for support about an hour into the fight and by all accounts arrived quickly.]

When they did, they were not authorized to help. [by the troops on the ground, who were fighting at close quarters and didn’t want to risk “friendly fire (see above)] So, a dozen of our Green Berets fought a battle with more than 50 ISIS fighters, without help, for 30 minutes.

Finally, a rescue helicopter arrived, but it was not a US military helicopter. [I can find no reporting confirming this point.]

No, we apparently outsourced that job to “private contractors.” So, these contractors landed and loaded the remaining troops, the injured and the dead.

Here’s where this gets really bad ….

Because they were not military, they never did a head count. That is how Sgt. La David Johnson was left behind. [again, I’ve seen no reporting that confirms this]

That’s right …. they left him behind.  [they did leave him behind, but why they did so remains an open question]

According to the Pentagon, his locator beacon was activated on the battlefield, which indicates that he was alive when they left him there.

They recovered his body 48 hours later, but are refusing to say where. According to his widow, she was told that she could not have an open casket funeral. This indicates that he was mutilated after being left behind on the battlefield.  [it indicates that his body is not viewable; the reason is speculative]

This is what led to the nonsense we’re obsessing over. This is the real story. As usual, you’re allowing it to be about Trump’s distraction, but this is Benghazi on steroids.

The Trump Pentagon gave these men bad intel, no support, outsourced rescue people and then tried for more than a week to pretend it never happened.  [our soldiers clearly had bad intelligence…]

In that time, Trump spoke on many occasions and never mentioned it. He tweeted attacks on many but never mentioned these men. [true]

Only after pressure from the media has he bothered to even acknowledge these men and their service

Please share, copy and paste. [which  I did]

#worsethanbenghazi

The post above indulges in “truthiness.”  There is much that’s wrong and unknown about what happened, and our soldiers and their families deserve better.  However, they—and we—are not served by adding seemingly true statements that fit our version of the facts.

I intensely regret my part in propagating this cynical pabulum.  If any of the unsupported claims here turn out to be true, they will need addressing.  In the end, it may be that these deaths are worse than what happened in Benghazi. It may be that out-sourced “contractors” left a man behind to die.  It is true that we don’t properly support our military.  But when outrage rides in on an obviously stolen horse, we would all do well to ask a few questions before rallying to follow it.

The current administration supplies us with a daily diet of callous cruelty and bumptious, self-dealing ineptitude. Adding in false claims undermines the very real effort to resist.

I thank the two friends who reminded me.

 James McCrone is the author of Faithless Elector and Dark Network, part of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series. They are available at many local bookstores. Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.     REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center