Another Dean Ing novel. This one has no real fantastic elements.
Raw Feed (2002): Spooker, Dean Ing, 1995.
I’ve liked Ing’s realistic details on espionage tradecraft and organizations, and this book didn’t disappoint in that regard — though, of course, the world of spies depicted is much more violent than it is in reality.
What was most striking about this book was its ending. Normally, you would expect hero Gary Landis to save, at the last moment, his new girlfriend (and long time friend) Janelle Betancourt from the clutches of Andy Soriano and his mother, Skander Masaryk. Not only doesn’t Ing do that, but, in the attempt of her grandfather, Swede Halvorsen, to save Janelle, he lethally kills her with a stray shotgun pellet into the brain. If Landis were a series espionage hero who was habitually unattached, the killing of Janelle would simply be a resetting of his affairs for the next book. Here it’s a lingering tragedy.
It’s not the only thing strange about the presentation and structure of this espionage thriller. The initial spooker killings are referred to in the narrative voice of an unidentified narrative “we”. We never do find out (and this, I think, is the biggest flaw of the book) who makes the attempt on Masaryk’s life after she defects to the CIA (we assume it’s the KGB but that’s only a guess).
Ing likes characters with psychological pathologies, but they usually aren’t all that novel or interesting and have the feel of warmed over psychological cliches from others’ works. That was true of some characters in his Butcher Bird and Soft Targets. Here the twisted relationship between Skander and Andy seemed quite plausible. Skander kills secret agents for their exfiltration kits of money and for the pleasure of pitting herself against espionage professionals and wrecking revenge on the KGB who oppressed her native Czechoslovakia and the CIA who she thinks betrayed her as a defector. (The spooker kits of the title — I’ve never heard the term “spooker” before so I don’t know if Ing invented it.) She dominates Andy, forbids him sex with women, constantly criticizes him, blames him for some of her own mistakes. She adopted him (stole, really) as an assistant for her murders. Both of them are masters of disguise (Skander aided by being a natural hermaphrodite), adept at the trade and tools of espionage, and methods of murder. But, under Skander’s domination, Andy develops into a stereotypical serial killer with sexual motives.
In the course of the book, he moves from sex with dead animals to trying to kill an attractive older woman (who reminds him of Skander) at his community theater group and, later, Janelle. (The last seemed improbable since his sexual attraction seems to inexplicably shift from the attractive and older type woman who reminds him of his mother, to Janelle, who is more like the women he despises as “glamourpussies”.) Through most of the book, you’re uncertain how much the cold, brilliant, and ruthless Skander cares for Andy. Eventually, it’s revealed she has no love for him, regarded him as nothing more than a tool. When a mistake convinces her it’s time to retire, she plots Andy’s murder, even more of a necessity when she finds out about his psychological degradation as evidenced by the dead animal carcasses he has been having sex with.
The confrontation between Andy and Skander is expected, but, in keeping with the strain of accident and coincidence running through the book, it’s precipitated by accidents. Not only does Skander discover Andy’s sexual secrets, but two rather comically depicted (at least, at first) FBI agents (one with a hangover) scare him into running when they are called to investigate Andy for, of all things, the theft of two kittens from a Federal research facility where he works. (Andy stole the kittens for sex.) They follow him to the killers’ lair on an Indian reservation (which Skander is in the midst of booby-trapping with ammonia nitrate-diesel bombs in order to kill Andy).
Skander, an aviation buff, has an interesting little plane called a Chamois. Lovingly described by Ing (I have no idea if it’s a real plane.), I expected it to play a much bigger role than simply as an escape vehicle for Andy after he kills his mom and before he goes after Janelle. The oddity of Landis not pursuing Andy to the final confrontation with his mother is matched by two “Andys” in the class of high schoolers that included the skeleton Landis finds in the mine shaft he was thrown in to die. Landis thinks the killer of that high schooler may have been one of the two “women” who tried to kill him, but he only discovers it was Andy Soriano too late. The death of Janelle is foreshadowed when Landis talks to another of that high school class who married a Bureau of Land Management agent whose first wife was killed by a firebomb meant for him.
I admired Ing for having the guts to kill Janelle, the psychological realism of Skander and Andy, and squeezing such a big story into so few pages — but this is one bizarrely plotted novel.