When Eric Caine is found wandering the streets of South Beach, dishevelled and mumbling Arabic, he’s taken for just another of Miami’s homeless. But when someone notices his military ID card they promptly take him to the local VA hospital. He’s crashed his car and has no memory of the last eight days, save that he’d been drinking and was probably involved in a bar fight. Recently discharged from the Air Force, Eric is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan where he worked as a pararescue jumper, providing medical support to anti-terrorist forces caught in hostile zones. The doctor suspects Eric is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) stemming from these experiences and recommends treatment.
Eric is having none of it. Keen to get away, he checks himself out of the hospital and soon discovers he’s been suspended from his civilian job as a paramedic. Intent on wallowing for a while in his “crappy, aimless life”, Eric hits a local bar and quickly finds himself back in violent trouble – and in the local lock-up. The duty sergeant tells Eric he was rescued by “a buddy”, one mysterious Antonio ‘Tony’ Montenegro – Business Consultant, according to his card. Intrigued, Eric meets Tony for dinner. Recognizing a man of useful talents, and a fellow Venezuelan, Tony recommends Eric for a job with Corso International where he is hired as a computer security expert and quickly relocated to Venezuela.
Eric soon realizes he’s being watched. He thinks he’s being followed, he knows his cell phone has been hacked, and someone is persistently trying to access his laptop. Is it a Corso competitor? The Venezuelan government? Or maybe even the NSA? Moreover, he can’t figure out if his gorgeous colleague, Trishna, is friend or foe. One evening, Eric attends a technology symposium where the Venezuelan President is giving a speech. As the speech unfolds, Eric is suddenly struck down by a migraine. He excuses himself and heads for bathroom where he assaults a security agent and takes his gun. On his way back, Eric intercepts the President who is now working the crowd. He shoots the President dead. Then he runs…
Henry Mosquera’s Sleeper’s Run unashamedly borrows its premise from The Manchurian Candidate, and owes a fair chunk of what follows to the spirit of Jason Bourne, but it still manages to cook up a reasonably complex and original story. It blends exotic locales, an assassination plot, memory loss, mind control, CIA conspiracies, and feats of derring-do. Half the fun of this genre is suspending disbelief, and Sleeper’s Run encourages it wholeheartedly, pushing the limits of credulity and at times going well beyond. It’s a high-concept tale that could easily form the basis of a Hollywood blockbuster or season-long television narrative, such as 24.
That all counts in its favour. As a story idea, it’s fine. But as a realised novel in the action-thriller genre, I was less convinced.
The issue for me is the writing style. An action-thriller must immerse the reader in the world of the novel. It must make the reader feel as if they are there. This is most effectively done with detail: the careful depiction of physical settings, the way characters look and sound, the size and shape of objects, etc. The prose should be functional, lean, unadorned, striving to be invisible. It also needs to move with an almost musical rhythm that pulls you across the page and makes you forget that you are reading. The result is a world vividly realised in your imagination. Sleeper’s Run occasionally does this – some of the action sequences are strong – but it often reads less like a novel and more like the treatment for a screenplay. By this I mean it flies over the action at 30,000 feet, preferring rapid synopsis and exposition to the detailed rendering of scenes. It’s as if the author can’t wait to get to the next chapter. This creates the strange sensation that the novel is moving very quickly and covering plenty of ground, but not really going anywhere. Pace comes at the price of characterisation, engagement and suspense.
When we do get detail, it often lacks originality. For example, Eric’s arrival at Tony’s house in Chapter 6 is described as follows:
This is very nice, I say to myself again when I step out into the garden. The first sight that hits me is a group of gorgeous women sunbathing topless by the pool. Tony’s idea of a small BBQ at home seems to come straight out of “Playboy.” His definition of a few friends means two dozen scantily clad people accompanied by a bartender juggling a full bar, a DJ spinning tracks, and a cook handling the grill.
Rather than describing an original scene, Mosquera simply instructs you to recall the “rich bad guy’s pool party” we’ve seen in dozens of Hollywood movies or every third episode of CSI: Miami. In another scene, Tony and Eric sit down for dinner and this is literally how it’s described:
Soon we’re sitting at the best table in the house, with a bottle of their finest red, and a doting waiter at our beck and call.
Ever seen that moment before? Ever heard those lazy phrases? I understand the temptation to use familiar scenes and stock phrases – you want to give your story a kind of narrative authenticity through its resemblance to other stories. However, the result is quite different. It pushes the reader out of the moment as something real because we see that we’re dealing with clichés. I had that feeling quite often throughout the novel, with many sequences feeling either derivative or too superficially handled to be involving. Again, they felt like sketches for scenes in a movie; gestures towards scenes the author wants to include but doesn’t quite know how to execute in prose.
The novel sometimes goes so far as to make explicit references to movies as a substitute for description, e.g. “I must look like Ed Norton in that scene with his boss in Fight Club”, and “My eyes are kept open like that guy in [A] Clockwork Orange”. One setting is described bluntly as looking “like the set of a horror film”. All of this would be fine – perfect, in fact – if our protagonist were an everyman movie buff in a comedic novel. But he isn’t that. Fleeing his enemies at one point, Eric says, “I Jackie Chan my way through an opening”, and he later reflects on his “John Woo move”. But think about it. Is this really the way a highly-trained solider and devotee of Jujitsu, Eskrima and Krav Maga, would describe what he just did? I’m all for characters being three-dimensional, and I know Eric is part IT geek, but those phrases just didn’t ring true.
Of course, film/television and genre fiction sit in something of a virtuous circle these days, with each feeding the other. Hollywood films and episodic television are the story forms we’re most familiar with – in the West, at least. So it’s no surprise that genre novels, especially by emerging writers, pretty closely resemble what we see on the screen. But a novel is still a novel, and how you tell the story on paper is very different. I’d have liked Sleeper’s Run more if it demonstrated a deeper understanding of these differences and their implications for storytelling.
And I suspect the author is, on some level, aware of those differences because sometimes he pulls it off masterfully. For example, in Chapter 43, Eric describes a sniper attack on a convoy. The way people’s heads are exploding and limbs being torn off suggests, to his soldier’s mind, that the attackers are triangulating and using .50 caliber rounds. In his escape from capture in Chapter 52, Eric’s thrillingly clinical description of knifing his way through his tormentors is obviously informed by his paramedic’s knowledge of anatomy. I winced at every slice. The descriptions in these passages are detailed, vivid, imaginatively original, and consistent with the character making the observations. My only complaint is they were too short. It’s great stuff! I wanted more there, and more of it throughout the novel.
But enough of what I didn’t like. Sleeper’s Run has a number of strengths, and one is its depiction of Venezuela. I can’t think of an action-thriller that uses Venezuela as a primary setting, or uses it without overt reference to the drug trade. Many readers probably consider Venezuela indistinguishable from Colombia or Panama – “just another of those Latin American countries”, characterized by violence and drug trafficking. Mosquera shows us instead what Venezuela actually is: a vibrant and contemporary society wrestling, like many, with urbanization, class warfare and political corruption. We’re treated to a potted history of Venezuela in parts. Some of these passages do read a little like downloads from The Economist and could be better blended into the action or dialogue, but for the most part they’re informative without being political or didactic. Mosquera chooses some great locations and really brings them alive. (This is another example of where he does deploy detail quite well.) These depictions appear to be based on real-life experience or some pretty exhaustive research, which is to be commended. This is the first novel I’ve reviewed on an e-reader (Kindle for iPad), and I found myself constantly flipping over to Google Earth to find the exact locations being described, they sounded so intriguing. The same applied when the action shifted to Qatar and other locales.
Eric Caine is also a strength of the novel. He’s a remarkably talented – and endearing – man. He was a pararescue jumper in a counter terrorist unit where he saw multiple combat missions. He’s a deadly force in hand-to-hand combat, has a genius-level IQ, is a phenomenally skilled computer hacker and, best of all, has the INTJ psych profile in the Myers-Briggs typology (like me). Dazzlingly multitalented protagonists – with useful flaws, of course – are a staple of action-thrillers, but what gives Eric originality is his heritage. Born to an American father and a Venezuelan mother, he grew up mostly in Venezuela but attended MIT and served in the US military. He has a foot in two worlds from the outset. This gives him great versatility in moving between cultures, and it also means he’s not necessarily at home in – nor unthinkingly loyal to – either. I’d be interested to see how Mosquera uses this refreshing ambiguity if Eric reappears in later novels. It could be a rich element of many stories, especially in a world increasingly dominated by economic and political globalization.
Finally, I can’t end this review without remarking on the narrative voice. For the most part the novel is told in the first person, in the voice of Eric Caine. Suddenly, at Chapter 16, it flips into third-person omniscient and covers scenes in which Eric does not appear, and of which he cannot have knowledge. The subsequent chapters mix the two perspectives, plus at least one that uses free-indirect narrative to get closer to Trishna. I found these changes jarring, initially. Up until Chapter 16 I felt aligned with Eric, and was enjoying being just as much in the dark as he was. However, the multiplicity of perspectives does allow Mosquera to advance the plot in new ways. Tension and anticipation can be more effectively built if we know more than the protagonist and see threats he doesn’t, and Mosquera uses the device to good effect. It’s a smart and surprising choice.
In summary, I found this a frustrating novel. It has a strong premise. I liked the originality of the settings and the central character. But the writing didn’t involve me. It didn’t hold my attention and demand I come back for more. The author clearly knows what he’s doing at a conceptual level. I hope he continues writing – and I really hope he reads widely in the action-thriller genre, which I doubt he’s done to date. The anxiety of influence will always be there, of course, but making a close study of a few successful thriller writers will reveal a lot about their techniques and why their novels are so engaging. (Lee Child would be a great place to start, as his prose is relentlessly spare yet amazingly visual.) My hope is not that Mosquera would ape their style, but that he would develop a technical appreciation of why their work is strong and thereby expand the possibilities of his own. Henry Mosquera is a thriller writer with potential. He has the gift of imagination, and knows all the elements required for a story to work. He just needs to hone his craft. I look forward to seeing how his work evolves.