Book Review: Fire Hawk – Geoffrey Archer

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“It begins in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq where Sam Packer is working undercover. He is arrested after learning that terrorists have been armed with Iraqi anthrax. Facing death, he is suddenly freed in a sinister deal between his Iraqi captors and his SIS masters, in which his ex-lover and fellow spy Chrissie is somehow involved.

Then begins a race against time in his pursuit of Iraqi dissidents bent on dragging the West into a Middle East war. The trail leads to Cyprus and Chrissie’s shocking demise, then to Ukraine and Washington. Packer has a dual mission: to prevent an anthrax attack on the American capital and to avenge the death of the woman he loved.”

~

Let me put it like this: if you like a traditional spy novel with copious amounts of intrigue, the occasional high-performing super car, and blindingly attractive women who may or may not be on the side of the villains, then Fire Hawk is the book for you. It meets all the usual criteria, invents some of its own, and harbours roughly a boatload (think cruise ship rather than canoe, and marvel on my exceptional wordplay) of suspense and enough plot twists to satisfy even the most demanding reader. It’s a richly detailed novel, and a worthy contribution to a genre that is, arguably, often overlooked in the pursuit of greatness.

At first glance, the premise seems both simple and familiar, arguably a rather worrying state of affairs. There’s the threat of war, for example, and destabilising rumours that prove to be shocking enough to send the entirety of the US into a frantic tailspin. As far as spy novels are concerned, this is far from uncommon. It could perhaps even be suggested that such incredibly high stakes are in fact a necessary component of the standard spy novel, without which they would seem somewhat lackluster.

However.

Fire Hawk’s plotline is far from predictable. It deviates constantly from the expected path of events, is highly detailed, and death-defying stunts – practically staple fare – are a rare commodity indeed. Instead, Fire Hawk focuses on the people involved, from the experts tasked to discover and prevent terrifying threats, to the ordinary people caught unwittingly in the crossfire. It is the joint, cohesive effort of the former that saves the day, not the last-minute stunts of the smartly dressed main character.

Why, it’s practically a feel-good novel.

That said, there is a main character, and his part is undoubtedly important. His name is Sam Packer, and – here comes the predictable part – he’s a spy. A good one, seemingly, although the novel begins with his imprisonment and torture, so for the first half at least it’s not quite certain as to what skills he is supposed to have (if any). Nonetheless, it is his subsequent release, the result of a somewhat dubious deal made with the West, and the information he provides – combined with that gathered from other sources – that leads the powers that be to suspect something rather sinister is afoot.

From there, it’s a cat and mouse game as our brave heroes – teams of specialists, mostly – struggle to save the day, just like any other spy novel. Except Sam Packer, the aforementioned main character, spends the majority of the novel searching for the person or people behind another character’s death, and, relatively speaking, much less time on saving the world. Sure, he’s present, and he plays a somewhat pivotal role, but he is far from the only participant, and arguably not even the most useful one.

This may seem like a small thing to be harping on about. In fact, it probably is. But that doesn’t make the above factors any less important, because it is often those ‘small things’ that make all the difference in comparing a hit and a flop.

Or maybe I’m just sleep-deprived.

Regardless, I felt that it was a nice touch. In too many spy thrillers, the main character appears to be the only person doing any work at all, and the only hope of saving a threatened civilisation. He swans around – heroically – and brings every single thread to a neat ending by the penultimate chapter. It’s admirable, it’s conclusive, and, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s fundamentally unrealistic.

In Fire Hawk, none of that happens. Sam Packer doesn’t save the day in a haze of bullets and pithy one-liners. Neither does he walk off into the sunset with the woman of his dreams hanging on his arm and laughing girlishly. It is a team of people that ultimately save the day, each contributing something unique to the effort, each an expert in their own field, and as I’ve previously mentioned, it is their cohesive, tireless effort that breaks the case wide open. Sam Packer, on the other hand, isn’t even responsible for kick starting the initial investigation into the alleged threat, despite being at that time heavily involved.

To conclude, Fire Hawk has the usual features of the traditional spy novel in abundance, but it uses them in a way that can arguably be considered to be unique. It is as such a refreshing take on a somewhat predictable structure, and one that I found particularly enjoyable.

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