“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Review: WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT by David Shafer

There is a place in northern Myanmar, close to the Chinese border, that can’t be found on any map, even if you have access to the latest high-tech GPS systems. At least, that’s the experience of Leila Majnoun, an aid-worker employed by an American NGO and operating in Myanmar, who accidentally stumbles across what appear to be US mercenaries guarding a facility in a remote Asian jungle. Leila is curious enough to send out an email to friends and colleagues, asking if anyone has heard of the facility. Within hours Leila’s visa has been revoked, and her father – the principal of a school in California – has been arrested on charges of child pornography.
  David Shafer’s techno-thriller debut begins in a conventional fashion, with concerned citizen Leila the innocent victim of what Ned Swain, a sympathetic American spy based in Myanmar’s capital of Naypyidaw, describes as ‘an immoral conspiracy almost certainly unrelated to national security.’ Leila isn’t the only one caught up in the globe-spanning spider’s web: in Portland, Oregon, the blogger and conspiracy theorist Leo Crane finds himself the subject of an intervention designed to incarcerate him in an institution. Meanwhile, Mark Devereaux, the author of the best-selling psychobabble self-help book Bringing the Inside Out, is adopted as a guru by James Straw, the CEO of the fictional SineCo, ‘the digital search-and-storage conglomerate’ that appears to be an unholy amalgamation of the real world’s technological behemoths.
  With all his characters finally on stage and the backdrop in place, David Shafer reveals the essence of his plot: a filthy-rich cabal of private enterprise is ‘planning an electronic coup’ to ‘control the storage and transmission of all the information in the world.’
  It’s a storyline worthy of the grand tradition of the conspiracy thriller. The villains, given the scale of their ambition, easily outstrip the worst excesses of cat-stroking Bond megalomaniacs, but the way in which Shafer incorporates the banalities of everyday life into the story makes their plot entirely believable. The Node, for example, is ‘SineCo’s newest gizmobauble’, a gadget that bears a remarkable similarity to contemporary smart-phones, although here the Node is the means by which SineCo persuades the world to pay for the privilege of voluntarily collecting and storing its most personal information, which will later be ruthlessly data-mined by SineCo.
  But for all its conventional narrative scenarios of innocent civilians at the mercy of dark forces and its bleak dystopian vision of the near future, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is by no means a standard techno-thriller. For one, Shafer has sufficient confidence in his readers to craft a slow-burning tale that is, for all its gleaming hardware and plans for a ‘New Alexandria’ of a globally centralised library-for-unimaginable-profit, very much a character-driven tale. Leila, Leo and Mark are richly detailed and empathic creations, their quirks and idiosyncrasies integral to the way in which they gradually uncover SineCo’s foul machinations.
  Moreover, the writing is a joy, Shafer employing both sly wit and a sharp eye for the telling image. “The grandeur fled,” Leo observes as he emerges from a reverie of a better world, “like shining back into shook foil.” Leila decides that Myanmar ‘sounded like a name cats would give their country.’ Indeed, the entire novel – all 422 pages of densely packed text – is littered with deliciously wry snippets and quotable lines, which gives the overall impression of a Neal Stephenson novel redrafted by Carl Hiaasen in blackly humorous form.
  Frighteningly plausible, epic in scale and vividly imagined, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a lovingly crafted homage to the techno-thriller that is hugely entertaining in its own right. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.

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