Although I enjoy a good thriller, I find most contemporary ones I pick up either completely generic, or wandering too far off the deep end of reality. (For a frame of reference, I think my all time favorite thriller is still The Day of the Jackal). I picked this up because it revolves around a career US Foreign Service officer in Africa -- and I grew up in a Foreign Service family.
The book opens with a prologue set in Darfur, where the hero is the American rep on the ground who can only stand by impotently as a refugee camp is annihilated by raiders. We then meet him three years later as he works the consular desk in Conakry (a city my grandparents served in), suffering from PTSD and with his career in tatters. His mentor, who is the US Ambassador in the Democratic Republic of Congo calls him up with an unexpected job offer and carer resurrection, which he gladly accepts.
What ensues is a competent thriller involving a large international mining company trying to relocate a village sitting on top of rich mineral deposits, a beautiful engineer trying to fight them off, a charismatic rebel warlord, a despotic strongman dictator, a secret society, villains that will surprise no one, two allies who might surprise, and all manner of close escapes, gunfights, and even a nighttime parachute drop. If elements of the plot are somewhat predictable, and aspects of the story somewhat cheesy, these deficiencies are somewhat offset by the authenticity of the material. It's hard to say more without getting into spoiler territory, but for example, the book does a very good job of explaining the background of Rwandan forces in Congo and incorporating them into the story.
I guess while the Foreign Service Officer makes a nice break from your typical CIA/FBI/NSA thriller superhero, and there are some interesting details about embassy life and procedures, and a welcome foray into the DRC's complex history, it doesn't elevate into "must read" thriller territory.
This is a really good debut novel and well worth the read. The book offers readers an insight into the workings of an Embassy and the challenges that face staff adhering to government direction while trying to make ethical decisions ; while the subject is not new Matthew Palmer provides a different slant on the issues, his personal knowledge providing a greater degree of authenticity. The opening chapter is harrowing and horribly accurate; we then move to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and are offered some insights into the challenges of life in a country that still suffers from internal strife, external exploitation and international indifference. While the storyline is a little imaginative at times, there is enough to entertain most readers and it jogs along at a fair pace. The ending is a little predictable but enjoyable nonetheless. Perhaps we shall see a little more depth to subsequent Alex Baines novels but this is a strong start.
This was not only an enjoyable read, but also enlightening regarding the Congo situation. However, I don't quite buy the claim that Palmer is better than le Carre. I would certainly look out for his next book, to see how he develops as a writer.
While here, may I suggest that when you promote both English and American versions of a book - I have Martin Walker in mind, I'm a great fan of Bruno and of Walker's honest depiction of France as is, and not, for instance, as wide-eyed Provencal tales would lead us to believer - you state which it is. I gather quite a few people were caught out by buying the same book with a different title.