The Shadow Patrol; A John Wells Novel, Alex Berenson (Putnum Adult, 2012){Penguin Audio, 2012; Narrator: George Guidall)

Grade: Δ — A solid read, but only buy it if you like the genre

In brief:

The Shadow Patrol by Alex Berenson is an action spy thriller that serves as the latest volume in the John Wells series.  It is well written and kept me turning pages, but has all the mystery and realism of a late Roger Moore Era James Bond flick. What is more it unintentionally portrayed the attitudes of the servicemen at the center of the book unrealistic and vaguely offensive manner. 


Modern Day (2012)Afghanistan with scenes in the modern US. 

In Depth:

The Shadow Patrol by Alex Berenson is a spy thriller that is really about Post-Traumatic Stress and Combat Theater Burn Out. Sadly, while the writing is well crafted and kept me turning pages, it deals with neither issue particularly well. 

The book begins with a very interesting prologue that, by itself, would have made a wonderful book.  Unfortunately, those scenes are nothing more than a setup that does little more than give away the ending of the novel.  Otherwise, the plot is built around a transparently thin mystery about a mole in the Kabul station of the CIA and a drug smuggling ring that may, or may not be related to it. 

While the story of the drug smuggling ring is interesting, the answer to the mystery at the heart of this thriller is obvious from the moment one opens the book.  Indeed, it is so crystal clear that one cannot imagine that any reader, not to mention the CIA, would not figure out who is the mole. Now, there is nothing wrong with a thriller that lets the reader know the answer to the mystery the characters are trying to solve, but in this case, the author kept using blatantly obvious (and to be honest ham-fisted) writing techniques to hide the identity of the mole.  I could not, for the life of me figure out why he bothered. Sure, he didn’t have to tell you the answer outright, but to tell you he’s not telling you, is just bad form.  What is more, there were no scenes in which the mole appeared that could not have otherwise been portrayed in a different manner or cut. 

Alex Berenson: Author of Shadow Patrol and the other John Wells novels

Alex Berenson is a better writer than that. His writing pulled me through all on its own.  His flow of words and interesting characterizations[1] were enough. I hope that he stops doing so in the future.  Oh this is no John LeCarre, but for a Spy-Thriller, it’s not half-bad, except….

Ah yes, there had to be an exception.  While John Wells is a very interesting character (ex-Special Forces,[2] ex-CIA man gone private contractor, who converted to Islam during his long fight against terrorism), the others… well…

As I said at the outset, this book is primarily about Post-Traumatic Stress and Combat Theater Burn Out.  These are both very very interesting themes to me and yet, in this novel they were portrayed in an almost offensive manner.  The number of soldiers in the book who say things like, “I don’t even know what victory would look like anymore,” is just silly.  Indeed, I cannot remember a single character who actually said anything like, “The worst thing we can do is pull out,” or “people who oppose this war just don’t understand what we’re doing over here,” both of which are the most common refrains I hear from men and women in uniform actively working in Afghanistan. 

Instead, throughout this novel, we are treated to characters that are not only burnt out (fair enough), but basically keep talking about how we can’t win the war.  These are not men and women who have shipped out and are back home; these are people in front-line positions.  Attitudes like that get you killed, and whether such doubts are justified or not, they are not normally found in soldiers in that role at that time… at least not in my experience. 

What is more, EVERYONE HAS THAT ATTITUDE.  There is not a single soldier, marine, airman, naval rating, what-have-you who does not show this kind of burn-out in the book. None of them show a “we really need to commit” or “we have to do what is necessary to win” attitude.  Indeed, most of those who we actually meet, not to mention get a POV from, are not only defeatist, but are also dirty. That bothered me.  Some are dealing in opium, others are psychopathic killers, but even the good ones have tenuous moral convictions and all clearly despise the Afghani.  I’m sure that Berenson had no intention to slight the men and women working on the front lines… and indeed this is no doubt done for dramatic tension etc., but to me, it kind of came across as offensive. 

Of course, some of the soldiers had to be dirty in order for there to be a plot, and that’s fine.  There are dirty, nasty people in the world, and what good would a story be without a conflict.  Even so, one must show that kind of burnt-out dirty character with some realism, and while most of the bad-guys are realistically portrayed, the principal villain, Francesca the Delta Sniper, is completely unbelievable. 

I know Berenson spent time in the Middle Eastern War theaters, but I can't help that this book would have been much improved had he read this book.
(or paid more attention to it)

Francesca is not the mole, but he does serve as the real threat and nemesis to Wells throughout the novel. I don’t want to give too much away, but what I can say is that the psychotic nature of this character is so unrealistic that it strained my suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point. He is, effectively, a giggling-insane-homicidal maniac who loses it because he spent too long doing what he does in the combat theater. Now, I can believe there are soldiers out there who could go this route, and I can even believe there are Delta’s out there who go bad and/or a bit nuts, but there is no way a Delta sniper could be the kind of giggling psychopathic killer shown in this book and not be sent home. The nature of the Delta Force and the kinds of operations they undertake requires a bit more screening that that.  They are not simply super-soldiers, they have very specific roles and if they start down the Doctor Giggles “I wanna slot one of my comrades for laughs” route that Francesca does, it’s usually found out pretty quick. 

So, to that end, while the story was a well written action thriller, that many people may love to read, it failed to really grip me due to the unrealistic nature of 99% of the characters, the thinly veiled plot machinations, and the transparent mystery that should have been the driving force of the quest.  What is more, I found the portrayal of the men and women in uniform to be almost offensive and quite unrealistic.

So, I give it a bit of a schizophrenic review. There is a good chance that people who like thrillers and don’t really care about realism will love this book.  For me, however, I find it easier to believe in dragons and faster-than-light travel than I did in many of the plot elements of this book.  What is more, I think that Berenson has the skill that could have made this an excellent book, but for whatever reason did not utilize it.   

Notes about the Audio Edition:

Book aside, Penguin Audio did a superb production of this novel.

The narrator was the extremely talented George Guidall.  His gravelly, even tones and soothing voice are a delight to listen to, and his skill as an actor brings the characters to life.  One of the best in the field, his narration was good enough that I almost gave this a gamma rating. 



[1]  Though this is said with a caveat, as noted below.

[2] I can’t say I remember which Special Forces he was a member of, I think he was a Green Beret, but the novel and the world at large uses the term Special Forces both as a general term and a specific term interchangeably, and audiobooks don’t show capitalization.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
This entry was posted in Chronicle, Cycle, Identity, Mystery, Ripping Yarn, Series, Spy Thriller, Stand Alone Novel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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