Missing connection

American Assassin by Vince Flynn is the first of a series of books that feature the protagonist Mitch Rapp. Visit Flynn’s website and you see fans sending in emails about how Rapp is their favourite character, photographs of various places where they are reading any of the Mitch Rapp books (there’s one picture featuring a Thai elephant and another underwater); they love that Rapp is America’s James Bond.

The book was a New York Times bestseller when it released in 2010; Hollywood bought the rights and American Assassin was recently made into a film starring Michael Keaton and Dylan O’Brien, directed by Michael Cuesta. The author Vince Flynn passed away at a tragically young age in 2013, but the book series is being continued by Kyle Mills.

American Assassin is about a man who is trained by a black-ops group of the CIA to go out there and seek ‘retributive’ justice, kill those whose dastardly deeds have created havoc in the world. His motivation — losing the love of his life in the Pan-Am Lockerbie terror attack.

In other words, the book is typical of its genre.

If I sound less-than-enthusiastic, it’s because I found myself bored with the story, with the characters, with the twists and turns. The first page has Rapp staring at his reflection in a cracked mirror and questioning his sanity. He is going to go into the hellfire himself because it’s not in his nature to sit on his hands, the way others do. Now that’s a hero that one can get behind, and yet one doesn’t really feel like cheering him on.

We feel alienated from this protagonist, this Manliest of Manly Men who, in his first hour at the Top Secret Assassin Boot Camp, succeeds in beating up his instructor, a man who is an expert in the field. The rest of the books in the series are about his weaving his way through the spy world, but in this first book, he already comes in as a lean-mean-fighting-machine. Where is the origin in this origin story?

The story starts at the boot camp and then jumps from Istanbul to Beirut to Switzerland as the terrorists are tracked down and killed by Mitch and Co. There is, but of course, a lovely lady in Zurich whom Mitch supposes he feels love for, but then, he doesn’t know much of love or any emotion. And perhaps that is why the reader doesn’t feel anything much for him either. A cold clinical spy can make for a great film hero and one can fill in the blanks while watching.

When it comes to a book, however, one would prefer a hero who feels some emotion. We get a brush-off, instead, since Mitch Rapp doesn’t believe anyone has the right to know his feelings, much less the reader. The other characters in the story are also rather generic — the irascible mentor, the all-knowing director of the CIA, the woman character working her way up the hierarchy who doesn’t mind all the terribly sexist swearing around her… one wished she would object on the reader’s behalf!

There’s a lot of action happening. There is explicit description of fight scenes, chases, torture scenes. Nothing new for those who read this genre, but it works well enough.
When it comes to the human element though, the writing gets lazy. A lot of important information about Rapp is skipped over. When being recruited, one of the characters tells another about Rapp: “Kennedy ticked off eight additional reasons why she felt this young man was the perfect candidate.” Forget the additional reasons, the reader doesn’t get to hear what even the first set of reasons were. Later, we read that this same character who recruited Rapp “…explained what she knew about Rapp, which admittedly wasn’t a great deal…”

The narration of the story is so loud, it overpowers all the characters. Rapp’s father dying when he was 13 is described as a “setback” in his life, as it was a “heavy blow.” When the woman he loved died, he shut himself off for weeks, and then “took his pathetic self-absorbed emotion and shoved it as far down in his gut as it would go, and he plugged it with the first and only thing he had available — anger.” No, we don’t see that anger either.

With all the characters being rather unidimensional, one isn’t too eager to pick up the next book in the series. Given the huge fan-following, however, one supposes it might make for some light entertainment for those who want just that.

American Assassin
Vince Flynn
Simon & Schuster
2017, pp 464, Rs 299

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