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Book Review: North from Calcutta by Duane Evans

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North from Calcutta is a fictional account of an incident that sounds like what one gets from the news media on an almost daily basis. “Ripped from the headlines!” is the usual hyperbole that’s used. I suspect, although I admit there’s nothing that’s been published that resembles it, that the incident is a thinly-veiled account of something Duane Evans came across in his posting in South Asia.

Been there; done that. Four small, empty words, yet full of meaning.

It’s often easy to see if the author of the book one is reading has been there and done that; or is s/he making it up? Duane Evans has been and done. Sure it said so in the credits, but the proof is in the telling, isn’t it? Anybody can make the claim, but the truth is in the telling. Looking at Evans’ photo, however, I wonder why. Early middle age, apparently in good physical condition and health, a doer and a go-getter in his job. Why did he leave CIA?

In a bureaucracy such as CIA has become, compounded during the past generation, there are plenty of reasons. Some selfish, some altruistic. But it all boils down to whether you’re still having fun, doesn’t it? My guess is Evans is another of the casualties of the revolving door of inept, ignorant and sometimes downright stupid political appointments and their clones that the appointees have empowered in CIA and other front-line organizations. Promotions depend more on ticket-punching and sucking up, than on accomplishments and the personal benefits a person has made to the organization.

Evans shoots straight from the hip, and his words come straight from the heart. Maybe that’s too much for the average idiot in the street (or the average political appointee) to take. The truth? Yeeek! We’re so used to getting our news in small, dainty, sanitized, pasteurized and homogenized bits, presented to us by our local television versions of Steve Stunning or Dianne Dreamboat, all diced nicely into palatable pieces, whether it’s the truth or the latest manufactured lie, the usual heavily filtered, heavily flavored pap that’s fed to citizens of planet Earth on a three-times-a-day or more diet.

There was once a time – it’s true, dammit! – when even political appointees sometimes did at least a passable job. Long gone, my friend. Now it’s every (wo)man for (her)(him)self, and the benefactor who gave you your high-profile job and keeps you in place. Organization? Hey, screw the organization, this is all about me!

North from Calcutta doesn’t get into the CIA’s internal politics much, just enough for you to realize that maybe things really are that bad. They’re not too common these days, but sometimes one can find a person willing to do the grunt work, to take personal responsibility, to let the toadies get the awards while quietly slaving away in the background. I think Evans might just be one of those.

Evans shows us plenty of action, but he also includes enough of the boring, nitpicky, idiotic shenanigans that the bureaucrats and politicians back inside the Beltway (They’re everywhere now, these bureaucrats and politicians, in seemingly every walk of life, every level.) put their staunchest and most-dedicated citizens through, all in the name of political correctness, or whatever it is that’s the buzzword or buzz-phrase of the day. They believe you can make mud pies without getting muddy. Any child can tell them differently – why can’t they get it on their own?

The book also serves as a primer for South Asian dirty politics – or is ‘dirty politics’ a redundancy? – that shows us the same backstabbing, double-dealing that is now American politics, is also South Asian politics.

The first half or so of the book lays the groundwork, and since it takes place in a part of the world comparatively few people have been to, to live or visit, there’s a fair amount of explanation and fact-dropping to adequately set the stage. After the foundation has been sorted out, Evans tears into his yarn with gusto, action, adventure, and the knowledge gained by somebody who knows of what he speaks.

The plot, at first blush, seems to be rather low-key, until Evans’ explanation of area geopolitics sinks in. Then the gravity of the act is fully realized, and our protagonist is in the thick of it. He’s a Pakistani who’s seen a fair amount of the world and has absorbed it, and is working for a Pakistani intelligence agency. Complicating matters include the inherent and steadily fanned hatred of each other by many Pakistanis and Indians, and a budding love affair between our westernized protagonist and the daughter of an engineer who was responsible for the design of the structure which terrorists are planning to destroy, with the extra complication that she’s Indian.

The plot steadily builds after the background has been sufficiently crafted, and in the last 50 or so pages the plot makes several zigzags which, I admit, snookered me once or twice. This book has enough to interest even the most casual reader, the dialogue is believable, and the plot crackles enough to keep an adrenalin junkie satisfied. But then nuclear war can do that.

Most of the action takes place in the countries of South Asia – Pakistan, India and Bangladesh – but also with DC, London, and the Gulf Coast represented periodically.

Don’t miss this great read. It’s only a shadow away from today’s headlines, and I highly recommend it.

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About Lou Novacheck