Shooting in the Dark

Claire Brooks was putting on her make-up, getting ready to go to a dentist appointment one perfectly ordinary morning when her husband Jeff told her he was leaving, that there was someone else. Unable to bear the thought of going on with life in New York, Claire makes the impetuous decision to pull half her money out of all their joint accounts and buys a one-way ticket to Amsterdam. It’s April 1980, and the city is filled with crowds preparing for the investiture of Queen Beatrix.

Meanwhile, Alan Dawson, a diplomat from the U.S. is attending a meeting of a semi-secret cabal of world leaders called the Circle Group. At the behest of “Sisyphus,” a former counter-intelligence agent who now runs his own freelance spy agency, Alan will be recording the proceedings to gather evidence of the group’s plan to assassinate the shah of Iran. He is then to pass the recording along to journalist John Stenner, who will then receive instructions to pass it along.

The early chapters of this well-constructed Cold War spy thriller alternate between Claire’s confused wanderings and the deliberate plans of the spies. We know that somehow these plots will come together, but how? And who among all these double-dealers will Claire be able to trust? Hougan lays out all the facts clearly but she holds back just enough information about the characters’ motives to keep readers on guard and unsure who the good guys really are. And we know that even the good guys aren’t necessarily to be trusted, since they might very well be willing to sacrifice a single bystander for the greater good.

Claire eventually meets John Stenner, and they begin what looks at first like a pleasant holiday liaison. But when John’s meet-up with Alan Dawson goes horribly wrong, they end up going on the run from everyone. The excitement of the investiture and the chaos of the riots that followed add to the confusion and danger. The pacing is terrific; there are periods of intensity, followed by pauses to regroup, and the action is exciting without being over the top. The characters, even the minor ones, are given just enough texture to make them interesting. For the most part, Hougan doesn’t go for caricatures and obvious pointers to who the heroes and villains are. The plot contains plenty of surprises and reversals, and it’s a lot of fun to read. The ending is a little too drawn-out, but that’s my only complaint.

The book was published in 1984, so it has something of a time-capsule feeling about it, which added to the pleasure. The characters mull over Carter’s effectiveness as president, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the long-term effects of Watergate on the intelligence community. It’s not important to understand the details of these events to follow the storyline; they just place the book in its particular time and place.

I read this book in a single afternoon and enjoyed it very much. Hougan wrote three other thrillers, one of which (The Romeo Flag) I already have on my shelves. She also co-authored a series of thrillers with her husband under the pseudonym John Case. I’m looking forward to checking out more of her work.

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6 Responses to Shooting in the Dark

  1. Some of my favourite words: “well-constructed Cold War spy thriller”! I also think that the ‘time-capsule’ element of these books – the Mccarrys and Macinneses, for instance – is a major part of their charm.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve read few spy thrillers (a little LeCarre, one Furst), but I thought this was such fun, especially since I could vaguely remember the period. Jenny is a huge McCarry fan, and I want to try his books sometime.

  2. Lisa says:

    I have that time-capsule feeling with mysteries as well, when there are no cell phones, and computers are rare & cumbersome. Of course, I can remember those days!

    I haven’t heard of this author, but the book sounds intriguing, particularly the setting.

    • Teresa says:

      I really enjoyed the setting, both for the time period and for the location. I ended up doing a lot of Wikipedia reading about Beatrix’s investiture and the riots. It’s one of those historical footnotes I never would have learned about.

  3. Jenny says:

    It feels rare to have a woman author of a spy thriller. I’m probably wrong about that and just don’t know the genre well enough, but it’s enough to draw me to this one.

    • Teresa says:

      I know next to nothing about spy fiction, but Helen MacInnes is the only other woman I can think of, although I’m sure there are more. I think you’d like this. It reminded me of some of the action movies we used to watch together. (The Fugitive in particular came to my mind at one point.)

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