Underground Reading: Scimitar by John Abbott
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
John Abbott's Scimitar (1992) is a graceless thriller set in New York. A Libyan sleeper agent, a dense college student and a self-absorbed British diplomat all fumble around the central plot - an assassin's scheme to assassinate President Bush.
The primary protagonist is "Sonny" aka Krishnan Hemkar aka Scott Hamilton aka a series of other pseudonyms. Sonny begins the book as a medical student in LA, but, by the second chapter, receives his long-awaited call to arms and makes his way to New York. Although his handlers keep dropping like flies, Sonny is able to make contact with the rest of his organisation and receive his orders. President Bush and ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher are both in New York. Take them out. If there's a problem with the mission? Just kill the President. (Poor Thatcher, not even a first-tier target.)
As well as being a doctor/assassin, Sonny's astoundingly good-looking. Jaw-droppingly so. In the opening pages, he's given the "come-hither" look from a beautiful woman in a singles bar, a young lady he leaves the next morning without even a note farewell. His libido gets some exercise on his cross-country journey as well. Sonny takes the train (for various "evil devices in luggage" reasons) and encounters Elita, a college sophomore who is immediately blown away by Sonny's sexual magnetism. Sonny's tried and tested pick-up line is "Would you like to sleep to me tonight?". And, hideously, it works every time. His rampaging ego is the book's real villain.
Although Sonny abandons Elita as soon as they get to NYC, the two keep encountering one another in a series of contrived events. Each time, Sonny gives a pathetic sort of excuse and Elita swallows it whole-heartedly (followed by more sex and more abandonment). The book's weirdly farcical plotting continues when, later in the book, Sonny moves to a safe house next door to Elita's foxy divorcée mother... [Spoiler: shenanigans ensue!]
The third major character is Geoffrey, a young diplomat at the British Consulate's office in New York. Geoffrey is dragged into the story by virtue of the fake British passports found on all the dead Libyan handlers. The crimes keep winding up on his desk, but he can't ignore the paperwork quickly enough. Geoffrey's real priority is finding a date for the fancy ball with Margaret Thatcher. And when Elita shows up at his office, seeking the Consulate's help in tracking down her mysterious lover (Sonny has told her that he's British), Geoffrey spies an opportunity. Because nothing says "available" like a woman searching for her missing lover.
While Geoffrey and Elita fumblingly half-look for Sonny, Sonny is busy rooting around in his terrorist fun-pack. In the book's most chilling scene, Sonny orders the materials for Sarin gas and then whips up a batch of the lethal stuff in his kitchen. This is followed by another genuinely disturbing sequence when Sonny walks through his local hardware store, contemplating how each household item he sees could be used as part of a lethal trap.
That moment of actual terror behind him, Sonny continues to trip over Geoffrey and Elita as the day draws near. The adventure eventually culminates in a series of goofy pratfalls that transform the book from "kinda sinister" to "totally silly". Mr. Abbott's choice to follow Geoffrey and Elita's narratives is an odd one. Neither are actually central to the story, nor are they intelligent enough to puzzle out what's actually going on. Meanwhile, in the background, the author populates Scimitar with a cast of competent police officers and intelligence agents. Although they're only seen in fragmentary glimpses; these are the people who actually put the pieces together and save the day.
If anything, Geoffrey and Elita are symbolic of the self-absorbed Western corpulence that Sonny is (ostensibly) battling. They are obsessed with petty, venal things; spoiled, dumb and lazy. Elita is too blinded by Sonny's looks to realize that he's an absolute shit (above and beyond the fact that he's a creepy terrorist assassin). Geoffrey can't ignore his duty quickly enough. Killings, shmillings, he's spotted a pretty girl and, oooh, gosh, do you think the Prime Minister might know his name now?
Not that Sonny is a particularly glorious martyr to the cause. Besides his predatory sexual hijinks, he's addicted to luxury clothes and surrounds himself with the finer things in life. Sonny repeatedly reminds himself that he'd be happy to die for his cause, yet spends more time pondering his escape than his attack. Not that his hypocrisy is in any way necessary - his ruthless confidence and perfectly coiffed hair are already enough to damn him in the eyes of the reader. The whole thing is a bit slimy and unsubtly jingoistic. Beware our ruthless enemy, for while we are idle, he will infiltrate our shores, dress up as a doctor and and have sex with our blondes (and their mothers) (truly these villains know no shame).
The actual plot plot dates the book quite badly. The US and British agents that piece the whole thing together uncover not only the Libyan terrorists, but also the false information that has set them against the US in the first place. In an "ah-ha" reveal more worthy of a knock-knock joke, the entire thing turns out to be set in motion by Saddam Hussein. The Libyans were played as fools by the real evil. This stratagem, better worthy of a Tom Clancy airport thriller, is introduced, discussed and forgotten over the space of a single page. Mr. Abbott, for better or for worse, wants this to be a psychological profile of the assassin and not a Jack Ryan doorstop. The bigger picture is less important than what's going on in Sonny's head while he's shagging Elita's mom.
The book also has a decidedly pre-9/11 feel. The procedural changes alone (good luck getting that close to the President) that would've made Scimitar impossible. But also Scimitar is utterly disinterested in the actual terrorism - there's no insight into Sonny's goals and motives or the people that are actually out to stop him. Although scenes like the Sarin production give glimpses of real horror, the bulk of the book is obsessed with minutiae (generally of a sexual nature). Scimitar belongs to an era of assassins, not terrorists; individual intervention, not organisational action. One villain, inadvertently foiled by the wacky hijinks of two rom-com leads.
Here's the big reveal: John Abbott is Ed McBain. (Not that big of a reveal. A recent survey of all crime novels published 1980 - 2000 showed that fully 43% were written by Ed McBain.) For McBain readers, this is almost patently obvious. Scimitar contains several of Mr. McBain's stylistic touches - including one of my favorites, the use of mixed media. The assassins pass photos back and forth, train tables and schematics are reproduced on the page - all fun little touches that help keep the reader mentally engaged with the (ostensible) detection. The themes - misguided assassins, communal 'laziness' and even ideological hypocrisy - are all familiar as well, if only because Mr. McBain did them better in The Sentries (1965) and Nobody Knew They Were There (1971, as Evan Hunter).
Scimitar feels like a diversion. Given the author's success writing the assassin mentality in earlier works, I'm not even sure Scimitar can be classified as a thought experiment - it is simply a failed retread. Like the 87th Precinct novels, Scimitar is grounded in detail and procedure, but here, there's never a sense of progression (or likability). The only efficient protagonist is the villain, and he's utterly charmless - every page with Sonny left me wanting to wash my hands. Mr. McBain's best books manage to mix the reality of the procedural with a sense of timeless detection. In the case of Scimitar, the daily routine of the fumbling "heroes" just makes the book dated and frustrating, and the plot itself is nothing more than a bouncing tumbleweed of disjointed contrivance.
Also, here's a cute article about "John Abbott" from when the book was first released.