If I had any integrity I would have returned James Grady’s Mad Dogs three seconds after I opened it and asked my editor for another assignment. That’s about the time I took to decide that Grady’s 11th spy novel was going to be cool, but of course I was basing my decision on what some might call an arbitrary standard.
As it happened, I opened the book to the epigraph just before the title page and there it was: the last verse of Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland.” Grady had me from that point on.
Those lines—“Outside the street’s on fire in a real death waltz/Between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy/And the poets down here don’t write nothing at all/They just stand back and let it all be/And in the quick of a knife, they reach for their moment/And try to make an honest stand”—are not all the Boss there is in here, either. During one of the book’s escape scenes, Grady alludes to obscure songs on The River and Nebraska in a clever and stylistically superb two-sentence paragraph. What’s more, this particular chase culminates in a raucous barroom concert (a cover band, sorry) in Asbury Park, N.J. Clearly, Grady, a UM graduate, knows and loves his Springsteen. He also knows how to write a thriller. And if you’re not as fond of Bruce as Grady and I are, there’s still plenty about this novel that rocks.
For starters, the book is as funny as it is suspenseful. Mad Dogs opens with a group therapy session deep in the woods of Maine at RAVENS Castle, a top-secret asylum for CIA spies who go insane in the line of duty. Five burnouts from American operations in Vietnam, Nigeria, Bosnia, Iraq and Malaysia trade stories with Dr. Friedman, a kindly young shrink headed for better things in the Agency. Basically the analyst’s job is to keep the group medicated and out of free America, but he cares and begins to help them. Everything’s swell until Friedman is found dead immediately after a group meeting. His five patients are the only logical suspects. The crew escapes to search for the real killer, but not before carting Friedman Weekend at Bernie’s-style around the asylum and its grounds. Then, like all good Springsteen characters, they take to the highway. Only this isn’t one guy driving all night to see his baby; this is five lunatics headed to D.C. without their meds.
As he did in Six Days of the Condor, his first and best book, Grady begins in a uniquely docile place, stages a compelling murder and fuels his plot with CIA agents who shift sides and give bad information. In Condor, Ronald Malcolm, code name Condor, works in a government research library reading spy novels in search of writers who know too much about how the CIA works. One day a colleague asks him about a crate of books that never arrived and the next day Malcolm returns from lunch to find all of his co-workers dead. Condor looks guilty. The point is not that these framed assassinations are formulaic (of course they’re formulaic; this is genre fiction), but rather that Grady has a talent for creating sedentary characters—procrastinators and neurotics like us who loaf and fidget about—and then making these people run like hell. Somehow, we accept Grady’s heroes as normal human beings and then when they become action figures we believe in their poise and their wit and their strength.
Furthermore, in Mad Dogs, Grady takes full advantage of his characters’ insanity, making their behavior erratic but not implausible (given the world of this novel) and always writing them as recognizable people. Granted, there’s some overwrought sentiment and some clumsy, earnest declarations of fellow-feeling, but there’s also more than enough hardboiled wisdom here and a line or two that are perfect for a nation hooked on pills and therapy. For example, when one of the five suspects kids herself about how effective her meds are, Victor, the leader of the fugitives, reflects, “We didn’t bust her delusion. That wouldn’t work, plus it didn’t matter how much we cared about her. The lies we live are our own business. Or our shrink’s. . .”
Gems like this and a plot that moves like it’s on Ritalin keep us racing to the end, when suddenly the book stalls momentarily before its climax. It seems that when Grady gets his troupe to D.C. he doesn’t quite know what to do with them, so he leaves the gang downtown and wrings out a few more jokes before letting us know who’s ultimately responsible for whacking Friedman. All is salvaged at the end, however, and the lapse in pace feels like a mood swing, easily correctible these days, or better yet, forgivable. But check it out for yourself. I’m still smitten by the Springsteen quote.
James Grady reads from and signs copies of Mad Dogs at the University of Montana Bookstore Friday, Oct. 13, at 11 AM.