Savage Roads (Where Griffons Feed) by Erich Penoff brings back something to contemporary fiction that has been missing since the end of the Cold War. Penoff, from the biography supplied, is a world traveler, originally from Canada, well traveled in the Americas as well as the hot spots of the world. Other than that the man is pretty much a mystery, like his main character, Marco.
As a kid, I spent a great deal of time reading in the 1970s. Not the usual kid stuff, but something like by J.G. Ballard, books of movies I couldn’t see, or spy stories. Spy books were the best, I think. They came either as trashy, James Bond-ish, gadgety action stories with larger than life characters or the really good ones, the more realistic ones. Smart, sometimes cocky, lead characters that planned, set things up, and survived by their plans and their wits when the plans didn’t work out. The story is what is important and not the action and gadgets. Penoff creates that same type of great story. It is no longer the Soviets, KGB, or the NKDV, but international finance and instability in Africa. There is a learning curve with what is going on in Africa. My one trip to Khartoum, Sudan and a graduate class in African security policy made me realize how out of date I was with the current situation. Things change fast and violently in Africa.
Marco is a wildlife photographer, or that is what he tells people and he has the pictures to back it up. Sometimes his pictures are more than Chechen wolves, like a ambush of a Russian military convoy. He has been in and out of jails, rough situations, and the best hotels in Europe. He works freelance and although in his sixties he still has another mission in him. His former colleague Karl calls him up with a problem. Karl is an investment banker whose problem is now Marco’s too. He needs to get an investment of $30 million in gold out of Democratic Republic of the Congo. Part of that investment belongs to Marco’s daughter. Marco starts planning a mission to get the gold. It’s not as easy as it sounds. There is some corruption involved, the Europol to deal with, logistics, team building, an attractive French agent, and a murder attempt, and Marco hasn’t left Western Europe yet.
This book is about the story and the characters. Although there is some action in the story, do not expect 007 toys or deus ex machina . There is very little suspension of disbelief needed when reading the book, it reads like real life. The characters are all very real and extremely well developed. The plot follows a definite pattern and order. It is executed with the precision of a Marine Corps’ Five Paragraph Order. The information on Africa is current and offers a realistic setting as well as the parties involved: Hutus and Tutsis, Christians and Muslims, government and rebels, runaway corruption and the ability to buy whatever you need…for a price.
Savage Roads took me back to the days of complex spy novels. The players and the arena may have changed, but the heroes and the excellent storytelling remain. This is the reincarnation of the classic spy novel for the post cold war era. This is the literary version of Cabernet Sauvignon in a Mad Dog world. A fine read with a bottle of Krug or Camus.