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Book Review: Final Target by Steven Gore

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Steven Gore’s Final Target is a thriller with the body of a Robert B. Parker mystery plus hints of Tom Clancy and notes of John Grisham. The smatterings of Clancy and Grisham appear in the convoluted international machinations and detailed legalese; the echoes of Parker are most prominent in the protagonist, Graham Gage, an ex-cop private investigator with a degree in philosophy. In spots, Gage is eerily reminiscent of Parker’s Spenser — both are intellectual tough guys with a weakness for the helpless and for whom internal ethics override the letter of the law.

There are definite distinctions between the two authors. While Parker was the real deal as a writer, Gore is a real-deal detective. A private investigator with training in forensic science, Gore presumably knows whereof he speaks. This detailed knowledge is reflected in his writing. Final Target is replete with the intricacies of corporate intrigue and spy-craft that could derive only from experience and/or extensive research. These details add layers of texture to the plot and make the reader willing to overlook some of Gore’s writing ticks.

From a literary standpoint, Gore is still a bit rough around the edges. Dialog in the first third of the book tends to be rather stilted and overly expository. Toward the middle of the book, Gore and his characters find their voices and settle down into wittier, pithier, and more gripping exchanges. A small note perhaps, but a distracting one: by the middle of the book, I felt that if one more character “drew back” I was going to hurl the book across the room. They did, but I didn’t; I wanted to find out what happens.

For all of its stylistic hiccups, Final Target is a slick and compelling thriller. Though never quite building to white-knuckle suspense, Final Target carries the reader on a fast-paced ride through the underworld of corporate fraud and international crime.

The first sentence of the prologue captures the eye and hints at the intrigue to come: “More surprising than spinning out of control, than smashing through the railing, than tumbling trunk-over-hood down the hillside; more surprising even than the sheet metal buckling around her, was that she was dying in English.” The notion that a person dies in a particular language is an unexpected attention-grabber. Gore is not shy about starting things out with a bang. The opening paragraph to chapter one may be a bit clichéd, but is undeniably suspenseful:

“’Come on buddy, don’t die on me. Don’t you dare die on me.’

“The rain-slickered EMT pressed hard on the side-by-side bullet holes in the fifty-year-old jogger’s sternum while a paramedic slipped an oxygen mask over the man’s nose and mouth. The runner was splayed out on a predawn sidewalk fronting ten-million-dollar mansions in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights.”

Already, we are given a vivid sense of place and a purpose. I wanted to know more — wanted, without even knowing his name, for the jogger to live. The jogger’s name is Jack Burch; best friend of our hero Gage. Burch’s shooting throws Gage into a tortuous maze where the prize at the center is his friend’s life and reputation.

Through corporate malfeasance, a Silicon Valley company known as SatTek has gone under, the victim of stock manipulation by its venal CEO. However, SatTek manufactures technology that has implications for the enhancement of weapons systems. Technology that Ukrainian mobsters badly want. It transpires that Jack, a high-powered corporate attorney, was hired by SatTek a few months prior to its collapse. Now everyone, from the U.S. District Attorney’s office to a shadowy criminal gang, is gunning for him. Of course, Burch’s only hope for salvation lies in the expertise of his friend. Gage enlists a bevy of motley and intriguing characters and launches a crusade to save Burch.

While Gage has the potential to be a popular franchise hero, at the moment he is a bit too much of a Boy Scout — too dedicated and upright — for truly complex depth. Far more entertaining are some of Gore’s secondary characters. Professor Blanchard (aka Mr. Black) is a delight — a retired computer engineering professor with a penchant for drama and a tendency for procrastination. I wanted to know more about Alex Z., Gage’s “wild-haired, Popeye-tattooed” data analyst and “Viz,” “the biggest man nobody ever saw.” Gage’s assortment of allies also includes retired Superintendant of Police Mickey Ransford, and the father/daughter team of Hixon One and Two, Milberg, the haiku-spouting SatTek accountant and Ninchenko, Gage’s Ukrainian doppelganger. With the exception of Milberg, Gage obviously has a previous history with this cast, and that history bodes well for sequels.

While Final Target is well-plotted and well-paced, its strength lies in Gore’s development of his characters. It is this quality that gives Gore’s writing legs and makes me want to see more of his work. Anyone can come up with a plot for a thriller, not everyone can make us care what happens. Final Target is a promising debut by a knowledgeable and engaging author.

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