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July 4th

Book Review - "Secrets of State" by Matthew Palmer

The following book review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper.  You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category on the right side bar.

9780399165719_p0_v2_s260x420Secrets of State by Matthew Palmer is a spy thriller that has diplomats instead of operatives.  With Matthew venturing into the thriller writer world, it became an all in the family affair since his late father, Michael Palmer, and his brother Daniel also are authors.  While Michael Palmer concentrated on hospitals and doctors to set the story, Matthew uses the world as a backdrop. 

He commented to, about his dad who was a best-selling author, “I learned how to write a novel from my dad as we sat around the dinner table.  He would explain how to tell a story, construct a character, shape a story arc, and keep readers engaged. My brother and I learned from pop to create tension by taking an ordinary person and putting them in extraordinary circumstances.  But it is hard to do that with the same guy twice, which is why my brother and I write stand-alones instead of a series.”

He went on to say, “My dad was tremendously helpful and supportive.  He got a huge kick from his kids writing.  One of the great tragedies is that he passed away before the publication date of my first book.  One of the most rewarding days of my life was the debut of my first book, American Mission. I walked into a Barnes & Noble and saw on the 'new-release' shelf, my father's final book, my book, and my brother's book, all lined up alphabetically alongside each other. This was a great moment.”

As a State Department employee for the last 24 years that included working in its think tank and at the National Security Council he is able to use his experiences to write interesting plots.  In this stand-alone Sam Trainor, the former top South Asia expert in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, has found a job in the private sector.  He now works as an analyst for the consulting firm of Argus Systems where he stumbles upon an intelligence anomaly.  He realizes that this transcript of a phone conversation about upending the political balance between India and Pakistan is misinformation that could cause an all out war between these nuclear countries.  Sam must race against a ticking clock and find the terrorists who have stolen a Pakistani nuclear warhead to detonate in Mumbai, India. 

Although fiction, readers learn about the complex Indian caste system between the elite and the slums.  They are also exposed to a modern day Machiavellian scenario: does the end justify the means. The book has a quote from Stalin, “the death of one person is a tragedy; the death of a hundred thousand is a statistic.” The protagonist, Sam must answer the question throughout the book, should one person be sacrificed to save many? 

The book also explores the affect of outsourcing America’s national security to private corporations.  The villains see themselves as Patriots willing to do anything to keep America safe.  Viewing the US President as misguided and not willing to make the hard choices they plan on stripping Pakistan of its nuclear weapons by setting one off in India and creating a new war.  Palmer brings to the forefront the issue of how secure are nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue nations.

What Palmer wants the reader to get out his books, “I hope people see this threat and to think of the morality and ethical issues including how far should we go to prevent terrorists from gaining access to Pakistan’s nuclear program.  I also want to change how diplomats are viewed.  Diplomats are frustrated for getting the short end of the stick in popular culture.  We are never heroes and are cast as unsympathetic bureaucrats.  I hope Americans see that diplomats have gotten a bum rap over the years.  It is a dangerous job for the most junior officer to the most senior.  If you walk into the State Department you will see on both sides of the wall engraved names of US diplomats who lost their lives in the line of duty. It is a long list.”

He also gave a heads up about his next book, The Wolf of Sarajevo Set in the Balkans, where Palmer spent many years as a diplomat, the hero must try to figure out who is pushing for a new conflict in the area and why.

His books do not have shootouts and the protagonist is not a super hero. The plot is moved along more by the characters words than their actions.  The intrigue of Secrets of State is the details of how diplomats must maneuver through international and domestic politics, sometimes risking their own life in doing so.