It occurred to me, as I read through Night's Black Agents for the umpteenth time, that I had a problem, and my problem was thrillers. I hadn't read enough. Or to be more accurate, the thrillers I read tend to be Anthony Price / Ian Fleming vintage; British, and a little out of date. Determined to update myself, I picked up The Bourne Identity second hand and ploughed through it. Fun stuff, but I hadn't realized how old it was. A 1980s spy fest wasn't updating me. Then I saw Andy McNab's Firewall.
McNab, for those who aren't familiar with his work, is a former soldier and ex-SAS who started writing in the 1990s, and kicked off his Nick Stone series in 1998. I've known who he was for a while - you can't go into a bookstore in the UK without seeing his name on a dustjacket somewhere - but I've not read any of his stuff until now. Nick Stone is his primary protagonist, an SAS turned deniable asset who works all over the globe, for all sorts of odd people. British Intelligence is his primary paymaster -for an insultingly low amount of money, if Firewall is to be believed - but he's willing to take almost any job that pays. In Firewall, the story begins when Stone's hired to kidnap a Russian oligarch, but when things go a bit pear shaped Stone not only sets the oligarch free but ends up working for him instead. Thus begins his escapades in Russia, as he attempts to stop the ROC from getting hold of the West's most sensitive electronic data. Firewall is currently being turned into the movie Echelon, still in production.
It's entertaining. I don't know if I would have picked this up had I not been interested in data mining it for Night's Black Agents, and I'm still not convinced I like McNab's writing style, but I liked it enough to pick up another of his, so I suppose that's a good sign. It's written in what I'm going to call First Person Fucknugget, or FPF for short, and the reason I'm calling it that is I'm firmly convinced that, if Stone ever paused for thought, his brain would explode. I've never read anything quite so much in the present tense; everything's explained from Stone's point of view, as Stone's seeing it, and Stone's constantly moving from point to point to point. It's like reading the adventures of a heavily armed movie camera with legs. It reminded me, oddly enough, of those old Games Workshop Felix and Gotrek novels, where the protagonists exist only to do massive amounts of damage and move on to the next scene.
McNab's thoroughly absorbed the old pulp dicta that, whenever things start to slow down, you should have a man come in the door with a gun, except this time the man's Stone and he's probably got at least two guns and a combat knife. That said, the body count is remarkably low, at least in Firewall. I didn't count, but I think Stone's bag didn't exceed a dozen, all told, not counting miscellaneous Russians who may or may not have died when Stone blew their building up. Felix and Gotrek, by contrast, would have gone through a Skaven army in the time it takes Stone to describe his meeting with his British Intelligence bosses.
I really liked Stone's fallibility. It didn't strike me until after I'd read it, but Jason Bourne's a bit too perfect. Yes, he has his memory problems, but when he goes into action he doesn't put a foot wrong, even if he does worry himself to death. Stone, by contrast, is a walking disaster. He gets into his latest scrape by screwing up a kidnapping. He reports back to his Intelligence bosses - who don't know he's contracting out on the side - looking for work to pay off his debts, only to be chewed out by his soon-to-be ex boss for the screwups he perpetrated in the last novel. "You trusted the femme fatale, you pillock!" screams the man who's about to be sacked because of what Stone did last time. "Cheery bye," says Stone, and he immediately trusts Firewall's femme fatale, who leads him off on a merry chase. Not only that, but Stone doesn't even get a shag out of it; the support character, the guy with the "I'm going to die tragically, and it's Nick Stone's fault" sign hung around his neck, is the one who gets her into bed. Cue mishap after mishap. Stone scuffles with the American NSA, beats them up because he doesn't know who they are, Stone gets mugged, Stone loses his support character, Stone gets a car from Russian mafia connection, Stone's car is stolen, Stone goes in search of his support character, massive explosions. If ever, as a Keeper, you've wondered how the players will get out of their latest cock-up, read a bit of McNab. There's always a way, if you're willing to get beaten up a bit first.
It's also a fascinating look at what happens in the middle of all this action. There's a tendency, on the Keeper's side, to make everything connected. The guy you meet in scene one will turn up in scene four, that sort of thing. Not so, in McNab's world. People pass through in the blink of an eye, get shot, and vanish, never to be seen again. Most of them don't even have names, or at least not names Stone's prepared to learn. If a civilian's wife gets killed in the kidnapping scene, and the husband's last seen sobbing over the body, that doesn't mean he's going to be an important diplomat who now swears revenge against Stone, as I was half expecting; he's just some random dude who got off the elevator at the wrong moment and walked into a gunfight. That will happen in the real world, but it doesn't often happen in fiction. I think this is where McNab's ex military experience really comes through; not in the technobabble or the action, but in his understanding that, in any action scene, there's going to be chaos, confusion, cock ups and misfires. It happens, and the work of a professional isn't to overcome the opposition, but to overcome the problems that the mission throws up, usually at the worst possible moment.
I'd definitely recommend McNab to anyone wanting to run, or play, Night's Black Agents. I don't say he's brilliant; I say he's useful, and a fun read, particularly if you want a better idea of how a gunfight might play out or what a good chase scene needs. But I'd add the caveat that it only really works if you're running an action-packed game, with mooks aplenty; if you were aiming for something a little more sedate and vicious, like John le Carré, steer clear.