Mitch Rapp faces off against a dangerous modern terrorist with a vendetta…
An unprecedented and terrifying bioterrorism plot threatens to kill millions in the midst of a divisive presidential election…
A toxic presidential election is underway in an America already badly weakened by internal divisions. While politicians focus entirely on maintaining their own power and privilege, ISIS kidnaps a brilliant French microbiologist and forces him to begin manufacturing anthrax. Slickly produced videos chronicling his progress and threatening an imminent attack are posted to the Internet, intensifying the hysteria gripping the US.
ISIS recruits a Mexican drug cartel to smuggle the bioweapon across the border, but it’s really just a diversion. The terrorist organization needs to keep Mitch Rapp and Irene Kennedy distracted long enough to weaponize a deadly virus that they stumbled upon in Yemen. If they succeed, they’ll trigger a pandemic that could rewrite the world order.
Rapp embarks on a mission to infiltrate the Mexican cartels and track down the ISIS leader who he failed to kill during their last confrontation. But with Washington’s political elite increasingly lined up against him, he knows he’ll be on his own.
The 18th novel in the Mitch Rapp series, and the fifth written by Kyle Mills. The story picks up quite soon after the previous novel, and while it felt a little slower to get going than normal (usually I’m hooked within a page or two), Lethal Agent builds nicely: there’s politics, action, betrayal, and a pretty satisfying ending. As expected, I enjoyed this.
As I’ve said in previous reviews of the Rapp series, I’ve very much enjoyed the way Mills has aged and grown the character. He’s no longer an official employee of the CIA, but still their go-to operative for the most difficult and more (physically and politically) dangerous missions. As in previous Rapp novels, there are two kinds of antagonists that Mitch et al need to confront and conquer: the foreign (Halabi and drug cartels) and also the domestic (Senator Christine Barnett — more on her in a bit).
ISIS leader Halabi is in many ways a perfect American nightmare: charismatic, he is a terrorist who has learned to adapt to the modern way of war, and also adopted technology to serve his interests. He’s recognized the power of social media to disseminate terror and recruit followers. Not only that, he’s somehow managed to acquire a force of highly-trained warriors, who are capable enough to given Rapp and his frequent collaborators a run for their money. Throughout the novel, though, Halabi struggles with his own hatred for Rapp, and consuming desire to be the man who puts down the CIA’s greatest asset. Halabi’s terrorist scheme runs throughout the novel, of course, and I enjoyed seeing Rapp and CIA Director Irene Kennedy get to grips with what they are seeing happen, and moving to combat the threat. Mills does a good job of showing us just how talented Rapp and especially Kennedy are at making connections — it doesn’t feel forced, or like insane leaps of insight. They are the best at what they do, and the author makes this clear and feel realistic (without stinting on the “hero” aspects).
On the domestic side, there is a lot of politics in this novel. There always is, of course, but it felt very much in the foreground of Lethal Agent, which I thought was new. As with other recently-published and upcoming thrillers and contemporary spy novels — such as Tom Rosenstiel’s Oppo and Matthew Quirk’s Hour of the Assassin — the politics is very current, and also quite critical (and often highly so). An election campaign is in the primary stages, and readers will no doubt spot the allusions to today’s politics and campaign. The commentary and criticism is mostly directed at politicians, but for once I felt like there was also some directed at the electorate, and the ease with which voters can be tricked into supporting this or that candidate.
“… With the right message, repeated enough times on enough media outlets, you could turn the American people against Jesus Christ himself.”
In another nod to contemporary politics, there is a tacit support for career civil servants and non-political government employees — whether military or not. There are many moments when these people are elevated above their elected bosses, which made a nice change from the politicized BS we hear about the “Deep State”.
Vince Flynn never shied away from including politics in his novels, of course. His debut is about special forces taking it upon themselves to eliminate politicians they believe have betrayed their country. During the publicity campaign for 2009’s Pursuit of Honor (12th in the series), he courted conservatives like Rush Limbaugh in a way that I thought kind of gross. (If you’re interested in more on this, I’d recommend Jason Zengerle’s 2009 New Republic article, in which he takes a look at the thriller genre and American conservatism at the time — a trend that has only accelerate in the decade since the piece was written.)
What made Lethal Agent stand out, to me, was the higher level of cynicism and disgust with politics as a whole. Certainly, it’s not hard to agree with the criticisms in the novel. At times, Mills uses the non-American characters to provide a critical lens of the current state of America. Here’s terrorist Halabi:
“America is as weak as it has been in a hundred and fifty years. Its people are consumed with hatred for each other. They see themselves as having been cheated by the rest of the world. Stolen from. Taken advantage of. The twenty-four-hour news cycle continues to reinforce these attitudes, as do the Russians’ Internet propaganda efforts. And the upcoming presidential election is amplifying those divisions to the point that the country is being torn apart.”
There are observations about how “America’s politicians were concerned with nothing but the perpetuation of their own power through the next election cycle”, and how this gets in the way of not only the clandestine services and their mission, but also the day-to-day running of the government, as well as each citizen’s general lives — it’s all-consuming, frenzied, and sleazy. (One gets the feeling that maybe the author was getting some stuff off his chest…)
“… It’s getting bad here, Mitch. America’s changing. I think maybe you don’t see it, because it’s your country. But I do.”
“It’s just politics,” Rapp said dismissively. “I’ve been dealing with this crap my entire career.”
“No. It’s more than that. You weren’t here to see the brick wall Irene and I hit trying to get help for you. Most people believe that Christine Barnett will be America’s next president and they’re focused entirely on dealing with that fact. A lot of good people are getting out and a lot of bad ones are moving up. People are paralyzed. They don’t know who they should ally themselves with. What positions they should take. No one can figure out exactly what she wants.”
“Power,” he said, standing and holding a hand out to her. “That’s all any of them want.”
What’s less clear, though, is which politician is on which side: none are identified as Democrats or Republicans, and unlike in the aforementioned Pursuit of Honor, it’s not obvious, either. Take Christine Barnett, for example. With a very strong lead in her party’s primary, she’s a force of nature. She is also a purely political creature. Imagine the worst elements of Donald Trump, but with strong mental faculties, mixed with some of the conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, but also her political savvy, and you might be close to Barnett. (There is one statement she makes that strongly suggested to me that was meant to be a Republican.) Barnett has an especially low opinion of the people she expects to vote for her.
“The American people don’t give a crap about political positions and they care even less about the truth. What they want is fireworks. They want a show…”
Barnett is described as “bat-shit crazy” at one point, and it’s interesting to think about the fact that a character like her wouldn’t have been considered believable prior to, say, 2012 (2008 at the earliest). Now, though, given what we see, read and hear on a daily basis from the US press… in some ways, they’re more believable than the real politicians.
The novel is fast-paced and gripping, it builds to a pretty satisfying end. (Although, the final pages left me feeling chilled at their implication, despite my antipathy for the character in question.) The action takes place in Yemen, Somalia, Mexico and in the US, as Halabi’s scheme progresses and Rapp’s mission moves and adapts to combat the threat. We get to see Rapp in a variety of situations, including a long stretch very much outside of his comfort zone. He remains fantastically talented and good at his job, of course, and we root for his success throughout. There was one moment when Rapp’s actions seem to take a rather extreme turn, and while it ultimately made sense, I thought the way the story had been constructed was just a shade less smooth than I’ve come to expect from Mills.
Overall, then, Lethal Agent is another very good addition to the long-running series. It remains one of my favourite, and I think Mills has done a fantastic job of making the characters and series his own. Rapp, despite being a “son of a bitch [with] more lives than an alley cat”, is evolving and adjusting to not only a changing political and global environment, but also his own age and recognition that he won’t be able to do this forever.