by Joe Shea
American Reporter Book Review Editor
January 1, 2011
'NO URN FOR THE ASHES' AIMS FOR THE SECRET FORMULA OF SISTERHOOD
(Stephen, Jeffrey: Targets of Deception. Cabot, AR: Variance Arkansas, 2009. 329 pps. $25.95 Hardcover.
BRADENTON, Fla., July 17, 2010 -- Jeffrey Stephen's debut thriller, "Targets of Deception" (Variance Arkansas, 2009) is that rare exception to run-of-the-mill espionage fare being published these days. It has excellent pacing, a clear and compelling plot with plenty of twists, well-grounded characters and a few real insights into the world of high-stakes spying.
Jordan Sandor, a would-be retiree of the Central Intelligence Adency, has two goals: avenging dead friends and colleagues, and averting a VX gas attack on multiple cities in the United States. As he travels to upstate New York along beautiful Route 32 (a few miles from this writer's hometown) to meet with a real retiree, he is wary of the invitation he's received to talk with his friend's former colleague, a spy agency turncoat who went to work for a Libya-based arms dealer and CIA rogue, Vincent Traiman.
He doesn't get there in time: the ex-agent has already been murdered, and the killers are still lurking around to spot Jordan. They kill an innocent state trooper instead, and a string of attempts to kill Sandor begins. Dan Peters, the CIA retiree who invited him to meet upstate, is murdered in the hospital. Jordan escapes the ambush upstate, and does so again in New York City, Fort Lauderdale, Paris and Portofino, a lovely port on the Italian Riviera at the northern end of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Meanwhile, an industrialist who is assisting the Traiman terror team with weapons of mass destruction is murdered in his offices in a Washington, D.C. suburb. The cast of bad guys grows quickly, as do the dimensions of a planned attack on America.
A mysterious woman who claims to be the brother of the first murdered agent is Jordan Sandor's companion through several of the ambushes, and her true identity is only revealed when the final moments of the book are near. He also picks up an endearing ally, Alfredo Andrioli, another former CIA agent who turned rogue and is now finding his conscience; he wants to come in from the cold by leveraging his information about Traiman's terrorists and their plans.
The President becomes involved when the murder toll mounts, and a CIA deputy director takes control of the show as the agency tries to flush moles from within its ranks into the open. With the inexorable approach of Sandor and friends, Traiman grows more desperate, the action becomes unrelenting and the book gets very hard to put down.
The VX gas is a fairly novel wrinkle in spy thrillers in a time when supersnipers, WMDs and deadly biological and computer-borne viruses tend to steal the show. We may have forgotten that VX, one of the deadliest weapons ever invented by man, is still out there in the arsenals of some nations. Just a well-placed pint or two is capable of killing thousands.
Traiman's terrorists intertwine with Al-Qaeda and would carry out their assaults with ease if it weren't for the courage of Sandor, a down-to-earth guy whose character is revealed more by what he cares about than what he does in the name of duty. What intrigued this reviewer was the backdrop of Libyan politics, where a somewhat reformed Moammar Ghaddafi is trying to cut ties with Traiman, a man responsible for some of the era's deadliest terrorist attacks.
As Libya tries to distance itself, Traiman is looking for a big score to cushion his retirement. Playing terrorist teams against one another, and betraying some, he ultimately is forced to reveal the complicity of some top-ranking CIA officials bent on the same goal. When the players all come together in Portofino, Jordan Sandor is the enemy's worst nightmare.
I enjoyed "Targets of Deception" for several reasons beyond the plot. The author took me to many cities I know, and to some, like Portofino, I do not. The taut description of characters was well-done, evoking for me the lure of both new and familiar faces. I liked Jordan Sandor for his simplicity and certainty, rare qualities in an age that complicates almost everything.
As regular readers know, I have an antipathy as a reviewer to books full of typos, and many new ones are. This book is a well-edited exception. I encountered one "comma splice" in a sentence very near the end, but that was it. There was an error in the dust jacket copy, though - the United States became "United State."