(Reviewed by Judi Clark MAR 31, 2003)
"Not useless. It has value. Our vaccines have great value. But only if applied to a virus that we know. I think if we are attacked, it will be with something new. A mutated virus. Or one spliced with new material. Worst of all is a chimera virus."
About halfway through reading this novel, FSB Associates checked with me to see how I was liking it. I realized then that "really enjoying it" was my most apt opinion. As it is clear from the jacket description that the plot would involve biological weapons, I questioned if I wanted to be reading this now given our world situation and the constant barrage of war news. Basically, I wondered about the "escape" potential that this book would offer. As it turns out, it is a perfect escape book. I wish Paul Bannerman could resolve all the world's problems.
Plot activities central to the story are set in Africa, not the Middle East, but is nevertheless a current post-9/11 story. One of the points made in the book is that in order to make a weapons-grade "chimera" virus, you need a large, well-protected, well-contained factory to create this most dangerous virus; "you must understand about these weapons. They cannot be concocted in some Afghan cave or in the kitchen of some lunatic fanatic. It takes years, it takes billions and enormous facilities." A chimera virus is especially scary because it is not possible to create a vaccine against it without being its creator and they are so potent that all it takes is one, maybe two molecules inhaled to infect and spread. Thus the likelihood of CDC creating an effective vaccination is nil. And without a vaccine, there is absolutely no chance of survival. Thus as expected, the plot turns on one vial of weapons-grade chimera, consisting of Marbug spliced with Smallpox, which is absconded from the US-owned Angolan facility called VaalChem. Though the person who takes it intends to use it against the cannibalistic Sierra Leone leader, a series of events changes the course of the virus. But I'm getting way ahead here. For one thing, I don't want to mislead you into thinking that this is a story about a spreading virus. It's not. It's about politics and personalities and a covert group who saves us all. So let me get on with it...
Artemus Bourne is a very powerful man, not only in the US but also worldwide. There is no kind way to describe this man -- he is a Machiavellian entrepreneur, a billionaire sociopath who has the US government and key corporate heads within his reach. Though his activities may be despicable, at least he's "our criminal," and not someone else's. Some go as far as to call him a true American patriot. The exclusive Sunday brunches that Bourne hosts are only one of the ways in which he shows his power and control. But like any top executive, he doesn't always know the specifics of what's going on in his name. Just before his guests arrive on this particular Sunday, a shipment is delivered from Angola -- a shipment he'd been expecting, though it was not to be sent to his home and not on this day of the week, nor is it within his instructions to use VaalChem containers. As he opens the three containers, he finds each holds a bloody, pulpy man's head. The third is the only one he recognizes-- it is his Chief Virologist and Director of VaalChem.
Bourne cancels Sunday brunch and gets his Angola man, Chester Lilly, in to shed some light on why he was sent this package. Of these three heads, Chaser identifies the ripest and most beat up as Savran Bobik's and reveals that this package is probably in retaliation from the Angolan rebel commander, Alameo. Bobik had done the same to Alameo's girlfriend, a Mossad agent named Sara. The third head is the Chief of Security for VaalChem, Bourne's company in Angola that officially makes vaccines, catalogs viral genetic signatures and unofficially makes weapons-grade viruses. Chester's explanation clarifies why Bobik lost his head, but does not go far enough to explain the other two. Nor why Bourne received the package. So Bourne pushes and learns that some of the VaalChem "bugs" were tried out on Alameo's troops. In confirmation of this theory, Bourne finds a propaganda poster under one head that shows a picture of Alameo dressed in full uniform.
Rather than retaliate or escalate, Bourne decides to neutralize Alameo and thus he requests that Chester find a woman, presumed dead, named Elizabeth Stride, otherwise known as "The Black Angel." It's not the first time that he's looked for her, he had asked the FBI a few months earlier, but they failed. The one man in the government that does not acquiesce to Bourne, that is, he refuses all invitations to Sunday brunch or any other interaction, is Roger Clew who works under the Secretary of State. Chester says something that makes Bourne think that Clew might be the key to finding Elizabeth Stride. For one thing, Clew's allegiance is with Paul Bannerman, whom we readers come to realize is Bourne's arch nemesis. And Bourne thinks that Stride could be one of Bannerman's "ghosts."
Paul Bannerman is the leader of a group of freelance espionage operatives who are talented and extremely dangerous people. Typically, you'd expect a group like this to be scattered throughout the world and invisible. That is true for some of his network (or ghosts), but the ones closest to him are his neighbors in Westport, Connecticut who own antique shops, travel agencies, book stores, etc., and live these everyday lives under there own names. Just regular people, who have a collective which Bannerman compares to a neighborhood watch. Many are married, including Bannerman whose wife is about to give birth to their second child.
We quickly learn that Stride is not part of this group in fact had never been, she had always worked as an independent. Sometime ago, she decided to give up her life as an assassin, desiring to live as "normal" a life as possible (despite a million dollar reward on her head). She staged her death and moved to Hilton Head, South Carolina. So now she shops, plays tennis, cooks, and keeps a close group of Muslim friends. She has a special attachment to a 16-year-old orphaned girl named Aisha. Outside of one incident that happened two years earlier, which is how she met Aisha, she has accomplished being as "normal' as you can expect. Well that is, if you don't count that she keeps a blue duffel bag in her closest stuffed with disguises, false identities and about a million-dollars worth of diamonds as a go-bag.
Then a strange incident happens in one of the local bars on Hilton Head. It has all the markings of something her lover, Martin Kessler, would do, but Kessler is dead -- he died during that other incident two years earlier. Too curious, Stride and Aisha decide to take a closer look at this out-of-town group that is disrupting their island. Stride recognizes them as Bannerman's people, and they recognize her. (This is one of my favorite scenes in the book.) Anyhow, the result of this encounter is that Elizabeth Stride is no longer dead and this knowledge has a way of trickling out. Actually, that's a mild word for what happens and how Bourne tries to get what he wants.
So that covers the gist of the story and its key players. But it is far from telling you anything about really happens nor does it touch upon what I really enjoy about this book, which boils down to I like Bannerman and his group. They are full of contradictions but of high moral value, just the way we like our superheroes. Unlike "bad" leaders who need to kill and otherwise abuse to keep their underlings in line, Bannerman is a strong leader, "more like a coach" and treats each person in his group as an individual operative. He rules from respect, not fear. And he's a very smart, forward thinking man. So, as in this case, even when Bannerman doesn't share the whole plan, his people do as he suggests and wait to see how events will pan out (as do we). It seems that Bannerman doesn't mind helping out with the bad guy's karma.
I hadn't known it until I started to put the bibliography together, but Elizabeth Stride and Martin Kessler were in a previous non-Bannerman book called Haven. Others staying on Hilton Head and involved in the story (remember the incident in the Hilton Head bar?), is Adam Whistler and Claudia Geller, whose original story is told in Whistler's Angel. Needless to say, Maxim shares enough information with us to not disrupt the current story, but it is also just enough to make me want to go read those books too.
There are other "ghosts" besides Bannerman's team in this book. Aisha visits with her dead mother when she sleeps and her mother tells her things that otherwise she wouldn't know. Kind of a great addition to the premise in The Lovely Bones, because it also explains a function of dreams. Then there is Claudia Geller who claims (and seems) to be a guardian angel. Her powers came to her after a near death experience. And even the ending of the book has a mystical twist. Mixing in this magical reality in the midst of a thriller floored me. I mean tough guys aren't supposed to think this way, so what's the author doing throwing this stuff in? Well it's fun and it reminds me of how George Chesbro writes - a little government paranoia mixed with the supernatural. And there are hints in the ending that this kind of thing is going to play a bigger role, well at least for Aisha, in a sequel. I guess the title of the next book, Bannerman's Prophecy, would lean towards that as well. Hopefully I will have caught up on some of this series before the next comes out. I'm hooked.
- Amazon readers rating: from 21 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Bannerman's Ghosts at MostlyFiction.com
(back to top)
Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Platforms (1980)
- Abel-Baker-Charley (1983)
- Time Out of Mind (1986)
- The Shadow Box (1996)
- Haven (1997) *
- Mosaic (1999)
- Whistler's Angel (March 2001) **
- The Bannerman Solution (1989)
- The Bannerman Effect (1990)
- Bannerman's Law (1991)
- Bannermans' Promise (1993) (originally titled A Matter of Honor)
- Bannerman's Ghosts (April 2003) *
- The Bannerman Prophecy
* Features Elizabeth Stride and Martin Kessler
** Bannerman spinoff, which ties back into Bannerman's Ghosts and likely The Bannerman Prophecy
(back to top)
- The John R. Maxim Home Page
- Readers Read interview with John Maxim
- Crescent Blues review of Whistler's Angel
(back to top)
About the Author:
John R Maxim was born and raised in Manhattan (New York City). He graduated from Fordham University and went into advertising, working on Madison Avenue. He rose to the title of Senior VP and moved to Greenwich, CT, and later Westport, CT. One night, while commuting home in the bar car of his train, he decided to quit and try writing. Platforms was sold within six months (without even using an agent), and the rest is history.
He and his wife live on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.