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Spotlight on: Black by Christopher Whitcomb

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Black by Christopher Whitcomb Christopher Whitcomb, Black

"You know I don't have that kind of information," he said. "That's the way it is on the wet side. Shadows, suggestions, denial. Only the cash is real." -- Christopher Whitcomb, Black

"Black ops" are counter-terrorist intelligence operations that, officially, don't exist. You will never see their successes in the papers or their failures on the nightly news broadcast. Nor will current employees really even admit to their existence. The closest thing we'll come is by reading books and watching movies that, of course, only offer a filtered -- and often fictionalized -- version of actual events. Though, as Black author -- and former FBI agent on the Hostage Rescue Team -- Christopher Whitcomb stated in a recent interview, the FBI isn't entirely against this because "secrecy has its place, but there is also benefit in a fair representation of the people, agencies and events wrapped up in it."

The four protagonists in Black have their lives and actions intersect in ways that the beginning of the novel doesn't even begin to foreshadow. Jordan Mitchell is introduced during a hearing held by Senator Elizabeth Beechum where Mitchell's company Borders Atlantic's new telecommunications encryption method is being touted as dangerous to national security: if the enemy has encrypted cellular lines, how can we listen in? When Senator Beechum is subsequently attacked in her home, "blaming the victim" is taken to a whole new level. (Mitchell mostly comes across merely as a walking description, offering little in the way of the charisma the character supposedly has, while Beechum invites immediate empathy due to her situation.)

Meanwhile, Jeremy Waller is the FNG ("fucking new guy") on the elite Hostage Rescue Team, just beginning his career with covert operations. One of these ops is so covert that no one else seems to have any information about it, and it doesn't involve "rescue" at all. Elsewhere, resident "Mata Hari" Sirad Malneaux doesn't hesitate to use her best attributes to obtain classified information from various sources. (Though it was difficult to keep track of the total number of double-crosses taking place, it certainly kept me on my toes.)

Whitcomb does break Orson Scott Card's first rule about naming characters: that no two characters' names begin with the same letter. In fact, he takes it a step further and gives Jeremy and Jordan the same number of letters. For a quick reader like myself, this was made confusing read as my mind kept switching from one to the other. A minor complaint, but one that made a difference in my perception of the book. Other flaws are that Mitchell's subsequent storyline was never quite as interesting as the others, a lack of suspense about the survival of a character based on the author, and almost no epilogue, but perhaps the consequences of these events are planned to be detailed in the proposed followup.

All in all, Black was an engrossing read. It was detailed enough to feel real, and fast-paced enough to be purely entertaining. None of those Tom Clancy-esque digressions for Whitcomb. The surprise twist ending was completely satisfying, though I would have liked more wrap-up, but Whitcomb makes Black a very suspenseful read with a surprisingly even-handed view of Saudi Arabians and Yemenis. The fact that Waller is having many of the same experiences that Whitcomb himself had -- his memoir, Cold Zero, covers his years on the FBI in different guises -- makes that character the most interesting. Whitcomb is not afraid to make Waller fallible when confronted with continually surprising information. We can only hope that Whitcomb's successors are as good at their job as Waller is at his own -- and as Whitcomb is at writing about it.

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