Thor Ups the Ante in 19th Thriller
By Josie Brown
The best way to create a thriving series: make each book better than the last.
Brad Thor, a celebrated master of the thriller genre, has done just that in each of his 18 previous novels. But in his latest, BACKLASH, Thor ups the ante by putting his protagonist, Scot Harvath—a former Navy SEAL and now a partner in a private Black Ops network called the Carlton Group—in so much danger that readers will be left gasping at every plot twist.
The novel starts off where his last book, Spymaster, ended. Not to give anything away, suffice it to say that in the first few pages of the story, Harvath’s life is turned upside down. He’s grief-stricken, drugged, and abducted into enemy territory: Russia.
To escape, not only must Harvath defend himself against his kidnappers, survive frigid temperatures in the middle of the Russian wilderness, and sabotage the Russian search squad already on his tail, he must also survive an attack from a wolf pack. Talk about the ultimate alpha death match.
Harvath’s journey begins with a great escape: surviving a plane crash while shackled and injured.
While going over this very early and immensely crucial scene with military consultants, Thor was given one prime directive. “I was told, ‘Exterminate all other survivors. Nothing else matters.’”
The methods in which Thor has his protagonist accomplish this mission are varied and inspired.
Just as brilliant is a particularly heinous tactic used by Harvath to telegraph his avenging bloodlust: with each kill, he takes a scalp.
“When I ran it up the flagpole with some of the guys who are in our nation’s most dangerous business, they could see where it could have a very chilling effect,” Thor says. If they were under the same circumstances, he explains, “They’d freak out. There’s just one-tenth of a second to take a stutter step before entering a room. If they have a sudden shock of panic, it could be the difference between life and death. It’s why I put that in there.”
An epigraph in BACKLASH quotes a stanza in The Odyssey:
There will be killing till the score is paid.
Thor uses it because he was moved by a New York Times article about Boston psychiatrist Jonathan Shay’s treatment of soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
“It suggested that people leaving for war should read The Iliad because it lets them know what parts in their lives they need to leave at home; that they should not bring with them to the battlefield,” Thor says. “But soldiers returning from war should read The Odyssey because certain parts of themselves need to be left on the battlefield. It should never come home with you.”
But Harvath’s fierce warrior mindset isn’t the only way in which his trek to the Finnish border parallels Odysseus’s journey home. “There are times he’s taken off-course and has many obstacles put in his path,” Thor points out.
While Harvath fights for his survival, he must also process his grief.
Thor’s readers are already used to his visually descriptive passages for tactical maneuvers. In BACKLASH, his writer’s voice is hauntingly lyrical while describing Harvath’s grief.
When asked about tapping Harvath’s dark emotions so viscerally, Thor says, “I’d wondered if perhaps I went too far—or not far enough. But when you’re on your 19th novel in a series, the goal is to keep up the momentum; to up your game.”
Thor’s first reader—his wife—let him know he’d hit it out of the park.
And early reviewers agree with her. As much as BACKLASH is an adrenaline-spiking action thriller, it is equally a tale of heartbreak. Thor has given Harvath every reason to give up. Instead, by staying true to his protagonist’s 18-novel emotional arc, what rises from the ashes of his sorrow are sparks of rage flamed furiously into the will to survive.
BACKLASH’s plot also allows Thor to ruminate on Russia’s take on how its Rule of Law differs from that of the free world.
In one of the book’s passages, he writes:
The Russians wanted to enjoy the peace and prosperity of a civilized world, without the encumbrances of following any of its laws. They wanted their sovereign territory respected, their system of government respected, their ability for self-determination respected, and on and on. What they didn’t want was to be forced to play by the same rules as everyone else…
When asked if he can foresee a time in which Russia will learn to play by world rules, Thor answers cautiously. “I hope so. Russia is a land of incredible beauty, and enchantment, and promise. It has so many wonderful people. But the people who run the country are so oppressive. How that regime hunts down journalists, dissidents, and gay people is terrible! They invaded Georgia. They took over the Crimea peninsula. They shot down a commercial jetliner. It just goes on and on and on. There are bad players at the top. But it’ll never reach its promise as long as it has the autocrats at the top of the pyramid. Change has to come from the ground up. Only the people of Russia will be able to get rid of those bad actors who are raiding their own country and lining their own pockets.
In BACKLASH, Thor also uses a quote attributed by Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would trade a little liberty for a little security deserved neither and would lose both.”
He finds it relevant in today’s world, where both geopolitical gamesmanship and national security rely so heavily on technology.
“That quote has been a favorite of mine for a while, particularly post-911,” Thor says. “With the creation of the Patriot Act, the NSA was allowed to scoop up everyone’s metadata for all phone calls. Americans’s privacy sources have penetrated our country’s own intelligence agencies.”
Another of Thor’s thrillers, Black List, deals with the US government’s Total Information Awareness (TIA) program.
“In part, the program was based on a Brookings Institute study of governments around the world. It shows that, as the cost of data storage dropped, governments increased surveillance of their people,” Thor says. “The United States was also part of the study. In fact, I open Black List with a Meet the Press quote from former Senator Frank Church. In effect, he warned that if the giant listening ears of the NSA were ever turned from listening abroad to listening inside the United States, we will have crossed a Rubicon in which there would be no coming back. Well, we’re there now.”
To make his point, Thor uses this bit of future shock at cocktail parties: “There are devices used at sporting events that shake hands with your phones for information. Cameras at stadiums read your and your children’s faces. Fast-forward 20 years, when your children are grown. Perhaps they’re political activists. The government has a way to track them down. So, the technology that is allegedly supposed to protect you and your children can now be used to silence your freedom of speech. How do you feel about that?”
These insights leave his guests awed.
“We have to be really careful about what we’re willing to surrender. By losing our liberties, little by little, we’ll lose them all,” Thor cautions. “If it’s important enough for the government to want it, it’s important enough for it to not want to give it back to you. I’m a big believer in allowing your citizens to hold on to as much as possible, in being responsible adults and fellow citizens, and giving the government the least it needs to do its job. We all want to be safe. But I don’t want to be safe if it means having the neighbor in the babushka sweeping the sidewalk outside my apartment building ratting me out to ‘Security Services’ because she saw me coming home with an extra bottle of vodka from the little market that I had to bribe somebody for. I don’t want to live that way.”
In BACKLASH, the US president, Paul Porter, plays an integral role in negotiating the return of Harvath. When asked if that could be a real-world scenario, Thor says, “This is a really tough question. When it comes to the Executive Office, a lot of covert operations exist in the realm of ‘plausible deniability.’ A president has to be able to say, ‘I have no idea. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ He needs to not know everything that’s going on.”
Now, knowing this, Thor is adamant about one thing: “To a man, to a woman, to a person, a president will go as far as it takes [to bring home the abductee]. He’d be willing to apply any pressure whatsoever—be it financial, military—whatever they have to do to get him back. This is especially true for someone at the level of Harvath, who has intelligence knowledge.”
In BACKLASH, Thor introduces readers to the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA), a governmental entity created specifically for these sorts of situations. “The program started under the Obama administration and continues under Trump. It was started after the ISIL kidnapping after (American journalist) James Foley. The Administration realized then that there was no specific department charged with getting him back.”
SPEHA has a war room at the FBI headquarters, Thor explains. “It was a place to get representatives from various government agencies—the Treasury, say, and the NSA, CIA, the FBI—on task in the same room, so that they could all be talking to their counterparts.”
Thor was duly impressed with the concept. “It’s brilliant. The more I learned, the more fascinated I was. I couldn’t wait to write about it. For an author, it’s like finding buried treasure.”
It’s also a source of pride for Thor. “As a US citizen, as a taxpayer, knowing that this kind of high-level strategy is going on reaffirms my faith in our government.”
Thor acknowledges that, as a managing partner in the Carlton Group, Harvath should have removed himself from field operations.
“It’s a selfish choice on the part of my protagonist. He wants it both ways. He puts a lot at risk by going into the field, and BACKLASH deals with that aspect of his choices too.”
In the book, the President’s backup plan is never needed. As a Thor fan would hope and expect, Harvath’s way out of Russia is both ingenious—and bloody.
Which begs the question. Is there a real Scot Harvath at our country’s disposal? And, has Thor met him?
“There are several,” Thor insists. “I haven’t met all of them. In fact, I can’t tell you how many there are. But yes, there are more than one.”
And not enough, as far as Thor is concerned. “Unfortunately, in the 1970s, we took a turn to more technical intelligence gathering. We got away from traditional spycraft. We’ve been making up for it ever since. The military special operations community and the intelligence community are a group of incredible men and women who are far away from home, in the darkest corners of the world doing the nation’s most dangerous business. These tough men and women do tricky, death-defying acts on our behalf so that we can continue to enjoy the freedoms we have. As a writer, I’m allowed to express my First Amendment rights, my thoughts, my politics in social media, and write the books I do. None of that would be possible without all the Scott Harvaths, be they male or female. There is no American Dream without them.”