JUSTIFIED ACTION (2013) by Earl Staggs
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
As I did when I reviewed Short Stories of Earl Staggs, I want to preface this review with the disclosure that Earl and I are longtime friends by virtue of having been colleagues on the staff of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine. When he offered me the Kindle edition of his latest novel, Justified Action, in return for an objective review, I readily agreed. I've enjoyed all of the short fiction of his that I've read (which includes two Derringer winners) as well as his first novel, the detective story Memory of a Murder.
I read Justified Action right after finishing Donald Hamilton's The Vanishers, a Matt Helm novel, and it was a refreshing change. The Vanishers was too long, felt padded, and thus what should have been a suspenseful fast-moving page-turner turned into a slog. In marked contrast, Justified Action has exactly the kind of pace one wants in a thriller. The novel introduces Tallmadge "Tall" Chambers, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. "A year ago, he was a Captain stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan, training new recruits and leading special ops in country. After an ugly incident with a drunken Colonel, he was sentenced to desk duty here at the Pentagon." He has three months left before he can retire after twenty years of service, and he's eagerly—and restlessly—looking forward to it.
His life-changing moment occurs when his old comrade-in-arms, Stephen Winslow, with whom he worked in Special Forces, takes him on a mission to Texas to kill a band of terrorists. Tall is subsequently recruited by General Cyrus Brock as the newest member of an unnamed special government agency begun by Brock four years earlier. "The CIA, NSA, Central Security, all the agencies, have their hands full with the major groups everyone's heard of," Brock explains. "For every one of those major groups, there's a hundred small groups or cells. No one knows about them...What my special agency does is track them down and put them out of business. And when I say put them out of business, I mean by whatever measures are necessary, no matter how extreme they may seem," adding, "Unless there are extenuating circumstances, we do not take prisoners...We operate with one simple credo. Kill one terrorist, save a hundred lives."
The day after he accepts the General's offer to join the agency, Tall learns about Anatole Remski, a dangerous and elusive terrorist mastermind. Six months later, Stephen Winslow dispatches him to a mission in Afghanistan that results in Remski's capture. It's a short-lived victory because Remski manages to escape—not long after he assures Tall that they'll meet again and that, when they do, Tall will die.
The novel covers several years' duration, during which time someone very near and dear to Tall dies in an automobile accident, leaving Tall in a depressive state for weeks until Stephen tells him that it was murder and Remski might be behind it. Moreover, various operatives around the world Tall has worked with are being systematically killed, making Remski the likeliest suspect. Re-energized, Tall sets out to hunt him down. In the process, he and the reader encounter quite a few surprises, among which is that a potential Presidential candidate might somehow be involved.
Earl's economical prose style is effectively descriptive while moving the story at an unflagging pace. Unlike The Vanishers, Justified Action contains no passages that feel like filler. The principal characters, and even some of the minor ones, are well-delineated. Ruthless, coolly pragmatic Matt Helm, though fascinating to watch, has never seemed to me especially companionable, whereas Tall Chambers, though ruthless when he has to be, is a likable hero, a guy you'd enjoy having a drink with.
The book teems with action, as a thriller should, but the on-screen violence is handled discreetly. Readers who are repelled by graphic depictions of brutal activities needn't shun this novel on those grounds; Earl does not revel in gore-fests. Nor does he find it necessary to depict sexual encounters. They're handled with tasteful obliquity. Readers who are offended by raw language need to realize that this is not a cozy domestic novel of manners; many of the characters swear from time to time. However, the profanity is not taken to extremes, and there is not a single f-bomb in the entire book.
Justified Action is highly recommended to anyone who loves an absorbing, fast-paced action thriller. And I'd say that about it even if the author wasn't an old friend.