Dublin cat-and-mouse with echoes of Bourne
Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30
It's a cool moment, for Irish viewers, in Steven Soderbergh's 2001 action movie Haywire when the action fetches up in this country: specifically, Russborough House, the Shelbourne Hotel and various Dublin streets.
There's something nicely satisfying, and exciting, in seeing our little patch of the planet included in this globe-spanning tale of espionage and intrigue. "I know that place!" you feel like shouting at the screen. It's as if James Bond has rocked up to your front door.
The same feeling hit me about a third of the way through Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Having begun its labyrinthine story in Myanmar, Oregon and New York, this cyber-thriller moves to Dublin.
Author David Shafer certainly knows the city (the American lived there for a time): Cabra, Stoneybatter, the Liberties, even the Ikea in Ballymun are among the places mentioned. There are chase scenes through Dublin's streets, and a great, tense cat-and-mouse set-piece in Smithfield horse market, where boisterous Travellers help our heroine to escape. Mercifully, too, the Irish characters speak like Irish people actually do. Shafer has a good ear for dialogue, be that American-English, Hiberno-English or the hideous corporate-speak of big business.
Which brings us to the meat of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (that title, I presume, is a play on the acronym WTF, for "what the f***" - an appropriately bemused response to a fictional world where cloaked, mysterious things take place beneath the visible surface).
Leila is Persian-American, battling to make a difference with an NGO in Myanmar. Leo is a pot-smoking conspiranoiac flake, heir to a toy-manufacturer fortune and about to fall off the cliff of emotional breakdown. Mark - an old friend of Leo - is a professional spoofer who struck it lucky with one of those "Rules for Life" self-help books and is now struggling to write the follow-up. The situation isn't helped by enthusiastic drink and drugs usage.
Leila sees something she shouldn't have, deep in the jungle near the Chinese border: private "security" contractors, ie mercenaries, loitering outside some sort of telecoms facility. When she mentions it in an email to friends, shadowy forces move against her; Leila's father is wrongly charged with child pornography offences, she's kicked out of Myanmar.
Before she leaves, an idealistic spy gives her a website address which he claims can help. Leila emails, and is immediately drawn into a conspiracy larger than anything she could have imagined.
Two conspiracies, actually. On one side, the malevolent Committee: a group of rapacious capitalists intent on gathering and monetising literally every bit of information, about everyone, that's ever been sent or stored by electronic means. On the other, Dear Diary: a collective of freedom-fighters, anarchists, hackers, subversives, revolutionaries.
Leo and Mark soon follow her down this rabbit-hole, but I'll stop there with the plot synopsis: one of the main pleasures of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is its serpentine, "whatever next?" storyline. It has the restless pace and visceral kick of an action-thriller.
The other main pleasure is that Shafer has written it with a brisk but elegant literary style. The prose doesn't always work - some of the neologisms and analogies feel a mite overcooked - but it usually does.
The narrative reminded me a lot of 2013's Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon, last year's The Peripheral by William Gibson, or Dave Eggers' The Circle. There are also echoes of movies like The Matrix, the Jason Bourne series and a clatter of other conspiracy/espionage thrillers. (And, yes, Haywire.)
Exciting, funny, moving and thought-provoking, it's not the greatest novel ever but it'll make a damn good read on the beach. And it's kind of scary too. How does that old gag go? It's not paranoia if they really are out to get you…
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Penguin, pbk, 442 pages, €11.99