Sunday, 14 August 2016

Stephen Leather, Spider and E Squadron (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

A short while back I said I'd have to discuss Stephen Leather's work someday, and rather than do that as a book review corner I thought it might be more interesting to discuss it in relation to the Increment, also known as E Squadron, one of the more persistent special forces tales.

Stephen Leather's a lot of fun to read. He's a UK former journalist turned novelist, whose main line is torn-from-the-headlines espionage. For horror gamers who aren't into spies and special forces hijinks, he also writes a series of supernaturals with his hero Jack Nightingale, former cop turned occultist who deals with Satanists and witchcraft.

Having read a few in the Nightingale series, in all honesty I don't like them much. The character's too much like a squeaky clean John Constantine which in turn reminds me too much of that damn TV show and then everything goes black and I wake up next to an empty case of Bushmills. Except that where Constantine as imagined by Moore, Delano and Ennis had a lot of charm, Nightingale lacks personality, to the point where you begin to wonder if he didn't pop along from central casting for the day.

Which to be fair is also a problem with Spider Shepherd, but then few people read spy novels for the clever and intriguing characters. We read them for the action and the intrigue, and Leather does deliver when it comes time to return to the land of cloak and dagger. Leather's very good at action, and believable scenes of murder and mayhem.

I suppose it's a fundamental split between horror and spy-fi. The one depends on character; in order to really feel invested in which character survives, you need to like those characters in the first place, and that means characters need to be interesting. Whereas a spy thriller depends on situation; you need to know the stakes are high, and that the action will keep coming. It would take a huge amount of self-deception to argue that Bourne or Bond are, in themselves, interesting characters, that the audience would enjoy watching what they might do on a long bank holiday weekend. No, we only care about Bourne or Bond when he's in a high-speed chase, disarming nukes, or shooting mooks. Not when he's down the pub with his mates, then off for a curry after.

Black Ops opens on a murder scene. A former US special forces turned private contractor is waiting for his target. The client has requested a 'suicide' by hanging, so Rob Tyler's waiting patiently, dressed in full forensic gear from head to toe to minimize trace evidence. It's that kind of detail that helps paint a scene; you can imagine a man, anonymous, wrapped from head to toe in protective clothing seen a thousand times in a thousand crime TV shows, just waiting for the chance to strike. This, you instinctively feel, is how assassins work. Not flashy, smooth-talking gamblers with a Walther PPK in a shoulder holster, but patient professionals lurking in ambush, dressed not for the casino but for business.

Black Ops links in with a long-rumored special section of British special forces: E Squadron, aka The Increment. While I don't think Leather ever explicitly says Shepherd's a member, a lot about his profile and CV suggests he might be or have been. Former SAS still in peak condition, in Black Ops Shepherd works for MI5 - though by the end this is in doubt - and handles all kinds of dubious duties on behalf of his boss, Charlotte Button. In the novel, he spends much of his time pretending to be a hit man in order to fool a Dutch millionaire who's trying to recruit killers to assassinate Putin.

Whereas the actual E Squadron's duties are, at best, unclear. Assuming it exists, which is itself an open question. If it does, then it's been suggested its duties involve offering military assistance to foreign powers, clandestine insertion and extraction of intelligence agents, and covert reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. It draws personnel from all elite branches of the British military, and so has a wide range of skills at its disposal. Pilots, sailors, CQB experts, you name it, the Increment has it. As for what it's been up to, it might have assassinated Princess Diana - an event Leather refers to - or Doctor David Kelly, and may have participated in other high-level killings. Or not. It certainly has personnel deployed in hot zones all over the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan, offers close protection for high value intelligence targets, and performs a host of other clandestine services as needed.

Black Ops illustrates two ways this could be implemented. In the Spider sections of the narrative, Shepherd's objective is to discourage the Dutch millionaire. Not because anyone at MI5 is in love with Putin, but because the most likely kill zone is in London during a summit and nobody needs the fall-out that an attempted assassination - or a successful one - would bring. In order to do that, Shepherd assumes the identity of an existing killer who, MI5 happens to know, is being clandestinely held in the Emirates. Meanwhile, in a separate section of the plot, another high-profile mercenary, Lex Harper, is tasked by Button to embarrass and then kill several highly placed members of the real IRA who are trying to buy very expensive rockets so they can shower London with HE. Embarrass, because Button doesn't want the other real IRA members to follow in their footsteps. To do this Harper pretends to be an arms dealer with a sideline in munitions swiped from the former Soviet Union. Stakes couldn't be higher, and the cloak-and-dagger is skillfully deployed.

While neither Harper nor Shepherd are part of E Squadron, a lot of what the characters do fits E Squadron's alleged remit: covert surveillance, intelligence gathering, quasi-military engagements, comfortable adoption of covert identities, the ability to operate clandestinely in unfamiliar territory or foreign soil. In addition to those fun things, the Increment's also alleged to have its own air section, equipped with a Puma helicopter and a C-130, and in all probability has a small flotilla too, or at least people capable of docking a boat and tying a reef knot. Which is all to the good since, if rumor is to be believed, every SIS station has a direct line to the SAS. You never know when, where, or in what circumstances, so best to be prepared for any eventuality.

In the Dracula Dossier there's also an E Squadron, but its duties seem much less far-reaching than those ascribed to the Increment. With that in mind, I suggest:

1) a new level 5 Bureaucracy test for Elvis, Hound, Nails and Tyler, Preparing the Ground. There will be times when the agents need caches of supplies (not necessarily weapons) placed ahead of time, trackers put on ships or other large vehicles, surveillance of a military or semi-military target, assistance in tracking a target, close protection (eg. on a visit to the Red Zone in Baghdad), or something similar. When that happens, it's E Squadron that carries out the task. Note that none of these things necessarily involve combat; more logistical support. In some instances, eg the close protection detail, having E Squadron on call might confer in-game benefits, say a free 1-point pool Intimidation. The exact nature of the benefit to be agreed between Director and Players. All this basically falls under Section 2027 in the Field Manual.

2) there are various existing Bureaucracy tests, eg Oakes Difficulty 3 assistance in cleaning up a crime scene, in which the source of the assistance is nebulous. It's reasonable to assume that the assistance comes from E Squadron, or at the very least that E Squadron arranges delivery of the assistance.

3) that E Squadron draws some of its membership from services like the RAF and Navy, and those personnel have Cherry level Piloting and Mechanics abilities. It's also reasonable to assume than any vehicle assigned to E Squadron (as opposed to stolen by) is Souped Up (p102, main book).

4) that E Squadron can supply vehicles as well as caches, and that those vehicles may be specially modified, eg with extra hidden compartments for those moments when you really need somewhere to hide an assault rifle. Duke Ian probably arranges this, either at level 5 Bureaucracy or possibly level 7 if the vehicle is suitably unusual or difficult to obtain.

5) that it's reasonable to assume E Squadron has access to its own transport, which probably includes helicopters, boats, a C-130 and several kinds of ground vehicle. Those vehicles are almost certainly modified, most likely with armor and bullet-resistant glass at the very least.

That's it from me! Enjoy.

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