A Decent Thriller: Two Days in Caracas

Two Days in Caracas book coverI receive several author newsletters (and might start my own soon – stay tuned). These often contain promotions for free or inexpensive ebooks, and I might click the download or purchase button without reading much about the book. A few weeks or months later, I’ll be on the bus, or waiting at the doctor, and there’s an unread book on my phone. I don’t remember where it came from, but I start reading it. It might be a romance, or it might be something completely different.

Two Days in Caracas, by Luana Ehrlich (2015), is something completely different. It’s not a romance. It’s a thriller, and from Potter’s Word Publishing. According to their site, they publish”‘flinch-free’ fiction, which means you as a reader will never encounter profanity, erotica, or excessive violence while enjoying their books.” Many of their authors “write Christian fiction with a definite emphasis on the gospel message,” and Ehrlich is one of them.

I’ve read Christian romances under the Harlequin Inspired label (sometimes added to Suspense or Historical), and generally enjoy them. They are sweets, and the main characters might go to church or pray. I don’t, but then I’m also not a cowboy or a duke, and I don’t mind reading about them. The religious element is much stronger in Two Days in Caracas, and, as this is a thriller, romance is relegated to a minor subplot. The main character, Titus Ray, is a born again Christian, and his religion is a significant aspect of his life. That’s fine – for me, that’s a touch of the exotic – but he’s also a CIA anti-terrorism field agent, who seems to have no moral qualms about his job. He prays before interrogating a tied up suspect, not for guidance on whether or not he is doing the right thing, but for assistance with the interrogation.

Apart from the moral issues, that Titus can readily reconcile his work and his faith makes him a simpler character, and a less interesting one. (He does struggle with his faith, so there is internal conflict, but his struggle to be a better Christian does not include doubts about his work. In fact, he sees his work as an opportunity to spread the good word.) Action heroes are not generally known for their moral complexity, so it may be unfair of me to note that here, but the professed faith of the character raises the issue. The agent with a conscience can work well. One great example is Joe Haldeman’s All My Sins Remembered.

Two Days in Caracas is one of a series of novels featuring Titus Ray, and while this stands alone, there are continuing narrative arcs. The series has a catchy set of titles:

One Step Back, a novella, the prequel to One Night in Tehran
One Night in Tehran, Book I
Two Days in Caracas, Book II
Three Weeks in Washington, Book III
Four Months in Cuba, Book IV
Five Years in Yemen, Book V

In Two Days in Caracas, Titus is in South America, on the trail of a hired assassin who killed a fellow agent. Titus needs to find him, but also wants to learn who hired him, and why. The plot is handled well, though the ending is a little weak. Then again, I have the same complaint about the ending of The Day of Jackal.

Although a thriller, many sequences are padded with ‘police procedural’ details. Ehrlich knows, or seems to know, a lot about how the CIA operates, down to some very mundane and occasionally questionable details. The old airport car rental counter suitcase switch is used to swap identities when Titus returns to the United States, but in today’s vigilant and monitored airports, it’s hard to believe no one would notice. The snares of CIA bureaucracy, on the other hand, are entirely believable – I’ve worked in government offices.

I didn’t miss profanity or violence, but the romantic subplot suffers, like some sweets, from characters who seem to lack any interest in sex. There is one tiresome style note: too frequent foreshadowing. Many chapters end with something like “As it turned out, we never got the chance to try” or “Little did I know I would never see him again.” These are not necessary to build tension, as the plot incorporates various plans, goals, and deadlines.

Although there is flat characterization, padding, and excessive foreshadowing, as action thrillers go, this a fine if unusual read. It has the plot, action, and characters of a thriller, with the sex and violence of a cozy mystery. However, one aspect left me uneasy.

Ehrlich has chosen to use the names of real products and organizations in her story. For example, the hero drives a Land Rover, and another character drives a Buick Enclave. Characters have meals at IHoP and Chick-fil-A. And the good guys works for the CIA, while the bad guys work for Hezbollah. In any subject, using real products and organizations is artistically risky, as events can make your references outdated or embarrassing. A benefit is that this approach heightens reality, but when the subject is terrorism, I prefer some distance from reality. That’s my idea of flinch-free fiction.