The Echelon Vendetta
by David Stone
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
432 pages, 2007
Banquo's Ghost Goes Covert
Reviewed by David Thayer
Micah Dalton, the protagonist in The Echelon Vendetta, works as a "cleaner" for the Central Intelligence Agency, meaning he's responsible for tidying up messy situations whenever -- and wherever -- they occur. He is combat ready, capable at his profession, with his inner Renaissance man on a firm leash. When a friend and colleague, Porter Naumann, is found dead in Cortona, Italy, Dalton needs to know what happened. Naumann died a peculiar death in the courtyard of an ancient church, his demise ruled a suicide by the investigators of the Caribinieri.
This debut novel by the pseudonymous Stone, reportedly a former soldier and intelligence officer, made critic Janet Maslin's list of Da Vinci Code clones in a recent New York Times article. But it doesn't really belong there. This author had something more interesting in mind.
The Echelon Vendetta is in part a buddy story, but with an unusual twist. Although he's deceased, Porter Naumann is a heck of a character whom the author, like William Shakespeare before him, decided to keep around. In life, Naumann was Dalton's best friend, and even after his gruesome death he remains a sounding board for the cleaner -- a prognosticator, and a surprisingly lively comrade. Sure, Porter's green and sort of glowing, and he hasn't changed his clothes in a while. But Stone makes this unusual gambit work in two ways: he presents Naumann's ghost in the context of many strange doings; and Naumann offers a certain cynical grounding to which Dalton can cling -- especially after the protagonist is drugged. From a vantage point both corporeal and spiritual, Naumann has a darn good grasp on reality.
Having neatened things up in Cortona, Dalton leaves for Venice, where we catch a first glimpse of this novel's antagonist, Pinto, in a restaurant:
An American, thought Dalton. From the Southwest, or California. Maybe a rancher or a cattleman. There was as well some other quality in his upright frame that suggested strength, vigor -- even menace. Dalton made a point of marking the man down -- shiny dark lizard-skin boots, tipped with silver, black jeans, a long black trench coat that looked pricey. He wore it the way the Venetians do, over his shoulder, like a cloak.
After the members of Naumann's family are found butchered in their London home, Dalton and Stone's story both head Stateside. The Company man is looking for a team assigned to a National Security Agency (NSA) project called ECHELON, a long-running trap-and-trace operation designed to collect intelligence at a meta level. A CIA group seconded to ECHELON carried out a sanctioned kill to prevent the distribution of proprietary technology to overseas buyers. The victim was a Native American whose death in a Colorado highway accident produced both collateral damage and unintended consequences. It turns out that a priest from a peyote cult in the American West is killing the men responsible -- Naumann included. Dalton's job is to unravel the mystery surrounding ECHELON by contacting members of the CIA's ill-fated team, who are now dying under bizarre and frightening circumstances.
Dalton's first stop is the state of Montana, which gives the author considerable opportunity to demonstrate his fine descriptive skills.
The road climbed, in a series of switchbacks and narrowing turns, past the tumbling waterfall that was the source of the Tongue River, past a valley full of strewn obelisks called the Fallen City, but climbing, always climbing, a rise of over six thousand feet above the sunlit valleys that fell precipitously away below them. Dalton, trying to appear calm while Katie raced around a curve with a drop on his side of a thousand feet, stared back over the shrinking landscape of the Powder River country and realized that a thin greenish tint of uneven land at the furthest reach of the far horizon could very well be South Dakota.
Once the story here moves west, Micah Dalton becomes either a man on a quest, or a rat in a maze, depending on one's perspective. He is effectively a detective in the employ of the very agency that may or may not have committed the crime he's out to avenge. David Stone presents this familiar setup in an unfamiliar way, being most effective when he describes the landscape with prose reminiscent of Wallace Stegner or Jim Harrison, rather than Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum. He's less successful in dialogue-driven scenes -- not because he can't write dialogue, but rather because he infuses his characters with so much verbal dexterity, that what they're saying can get lost in the shuffle of how they are saying it. Naumann, the ghost, sounds eloquent, as do Dalton and several minor characters who rise to levels of oratory that might have sparked Cicero's jealousy.
Hallucinatory drugs have long been of interest to the intelligence community, and Stone does a good job of blending that fascination -- specifically, as it relates to Native American religious rituals -- into his tale. He harkens back to the Carlos Castaneda era, paying homage to the CIA's desire to understand the usefulness of those drugs for interrogation purposes, as well as to the traditional religious applications of peyote and mescaline. He also manages to hint at the underlying absurdity of testing hallucinogens on field agents. Once they've seen emerald-green spiders that explode on contact, is national security in better hands?
This is not a perfect book, by any means. Over its course, we meet a number of characters whose task it is simply to move the plot forward. Before leaving Italy, for instance, the reader spends quite a bit of time with an Italian police official and a woman who provides both a fleeting love interest and a lead to Naumann's killer. It is rather disconcerting to discover that these players disappear from the story once Dalton crosses the Atlantic.
Furthermore, the climactic scene with Pinto, the antagonist, seems a bit flat, overshadowed by preceding episodes of a similar nature (though all are quite good unto themselves). After Pinto wipes out an ambush team in Montana, Dalton pursues him, leading to their final confrontation in Wyoming. The moment of truth doubles as the last flourish of magical realism before bullets trump the conjurer's tricks. In this instance, the plot device of distorted reality hinders the reader's view of the action.
Yet, in this yarn's resolution, a twist does justice to author Stone's story, as well as to Dalton, fixing the point of the novel's moral compass firmly toward true north. Dalton, after all, is a cleaner, and there is a nice symmetry in the closing scenes to both his job description and his natural state of being.
The Echelon Vendetta is an intelligent, sophisticated thriller, an impressive debut and a strong entry in the espionage genre. It's not The Da Vinci Code, but then it never intended to be. | March 2007
David Thayer is a Seattle freelance writer and author of the blog One More Bite of the Apple. He's also a published poet, his work having appeared in an anthology as well as literary magazines. Thayer has recently completed a crime novel, the beginning of a series about cops in the New York Police Department's Intelligence Division.