Time to Retire Dillon
Judas Gate, by Jack Higgins, is one of the dullest, so-called action books, I have read. What began as an intriguing, action-filled series staring Sean Dillon has deteriorated into little more than a tale of tedious plotting, endless talking, and almost constant drinking among characters who have lost their individuality. I wonder how the special unit headed by Ferguson can get anything right with all they drinking they do. I also wonder how Shamrock, the Irish-born villain, can plot anything with his constant drinking. Maybe it's the Irish way, according to Higgins; if so, it doesn't paint a very positive portrait of a warm and loving people.
There is no sense of urgency in what happens in the story. We learn that a dying soldier had accidentally recorded an Irish-speaking commander of a Taliban unit in Afghanistan that had attacked and killed a dozen US. Army Rangers and members of a British medical team, in an ambush. The chase is on, of course, to find that apparent traitor who calls himself Shamrock. We also hear of a mysterious Preacher, the Al Qaeda leader in London, who somehow manages to remain safe as an academic, despite his constantly using a cell phone to contact those he controls, including Shamrock; surely, MI5 should have intercepted his calls, especially with key word recognition programs. Along the way, we hear a lot about the Troubles and their aftermath in Ireland, yet see little of the consequences of that often brutal and tragic period in Irish history. We also hear about the fighting in Afghanistan, but most of the action is off stage; all we get is a lot of talking about it. What was promoted as a revenge novel in which, I imagined, Sean Dillon would go off to Afghanistan and find and destroy Shamrock--or bring him back to the U. K. for trial--became a big disappointment.
Another major issue I have with the novel is the lack of character development through individual portraits. I had to read the first two hundred pages twice to get any sense of each character. They sound alike, use similar phrasing, and are little more than cardboard cutouts, including the villain, Shamrock, as well as secondary characters Higgins introduces. The principals, such as Sean Dillon, General Ferguson, Daniel Holley, and Harry Miller--who should stand out as being sharply etched images--sound alike; with my eyes closed, I could not tell them apart. Even Harry and Billy Salter have lost their individuality as street thugs and are now little more than shallow images of themselves. Indeed, Billy used to be quick-tempered, "muscle" for Harry; in this book, he plays a minor role. In fact, he is even taken out of a critical mission at the end, in the Khufra Marshes of Algeria, by Ferguson (Higgins), after Billy was shot at near point-blank-range in the chest; while saved by a chest protector, he was deemed too weak to go after Shamrock.
What little action is there, occurs sporadically, and doesn't feel or sound believable. We have an amazing shot by Dillon, at dawn, in a pouring rain, off-balance, and at some distance in misty marshes, as he wounds Shamrock, but even that is contrived. We also have an attack on Ferguson in Pakistan, which is also artificial. That attack raises the question of why Ferguson would even go on such a mission; he must be in his 70s by now, and retired. When he does appear, Ferguson plays a minor role in what happens. Even Roper, the highly skilled communications expert and researcher employed by Ferguson, is just another name; we know nothing about how or why he is in the chair and how he manages to thrive on a few hours of sleep. I also wonder how he manages to do his critical work with all the alcohol he drinks. Many of the character details were introduced in previous books; the reader who is new to Higgins needs some of the background details, otherwise he will be completely lost in this novel.
Higgins also seems to have a problem with women. He killed off Hannah Bernstein, an effective member of Ferguson's unit, in an earlier novel; Dillon's lady friend, Monica Starling, is mentioned, but only in passing, being shipped off by Higgins to Harvard; and Shamrock's mother becomes an avenging angel. It is as though Higgins doesn't know what to with his women; so he figuratively get rids of them. As a cheat, Higgins opens the door to a sequel with Shamrock's mother predictably telling Dillon, after her son's funeral service, that she is going to avenge her son's death. This is the same device Higgins used with Kate Rashid in early adventures with Sean Dillon. We know what will happen to Shamrock's mother.
Finally, Higgins irritatingly uses a variation of "and he did," when a characters asks to be told about an event in the story. Rarely do two characters ever share information directly. And, of course, to make a character sound Irish, we have several "Old sods" or Old souls."
The edginess of a taut thriller is is gone in Judas Gate. I have read all of Jack Higgins' work from when he wrote as Harry Patterson through James Graham to today; the Judas Gate is the biggest disappointment so far. I think it is time for Higgins to retire Sean Dillon, as he did with Liam Devlin, and bring in new blood as the driving force in action thrillers, not merely part of more intellectual exercises.