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David Rich
Middle Man
E. P. Dutton / Penguin Putnam
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-525-95323-4
Publication Date: 08-29-2013
301 Pages; $26.95
Date Reviewed: 03-31-2014
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2014

Index:  Mysteryn  General Fiction

Characters disappear into story. Identity crumbles as we read and become those whom we read about, only to find a transformed version of ourselves. It's a complex process, reading, that in one and the same moment can be one hell of a lot of fun. The spy novel is a great place to find this and 'Middle Man' by David Rich is a great spy novel. Layering action scenes from big-budget movies with intimate character turns, 'Middle Man' captures the essence of spy literature as we stumble into a new century.

Lieutenant Rollie Waters, whom we first met in 'Caravan of Thieves,' is back. He's a haunted man. His deceased father, Dan, a intuitive, conscience-free genius of the con game, coaches Rollie regularly as he is plunged deeper into the post-Iraq morass of stolen wartime millions sought after by anyone who thinks they might have a clue. He's employed by SHADE, an acronym within an acronym. He's given a new identity that makes his work more convenient, with a sidekick and a young woman to help him as well. The millions are still missing, and now there's a King of Kurdistan in the mix.

Rich rolls out this thick carpet of deception, identity and greed with gusto and class. Make no mistake, 'Middle Man' is a lot of fun to read as you are rocketed from one scene of intense action or tension to another. But Rich is also a master of compact, complex characterization, and not just the men and women, but the ever-shifting political and economic landscape. Layers of deceit and lies clash in Rollie's mind as he navigates one fraught-filled frying pan, only to end up in an even more unpleasant fire.

Rich's plot is tense and involving, offering the prickly feel of reality. There's never a word or scene that is not packed with implication and complication. He's a master at filling you in on one scheme just as another appears on the horizon. His nuanced vision of the US and the Middle East is a smart blast of thought-provoking fun. You get a much more detailed understanding of life on the ground than you might from the news, but the veil of fiction chases away the polemics and replaces them with white-knuckle set-pieces. This is a marked improvement.

Villainy is an important aspect of any spy novel, and Rich offers his readers a superb serving of nasty bad guys at every level, from the field-action psychos to smooth-talking lotharios who deserve a Shirley Bassey theme song. He manages to make all of this feel real within the scope of the "everything goes" world of post-war Iraq. Sprinting through the many layers he's created makes this possible.

'Middle Man' is both a throwback to the good old days, when the spy novel as we know it was being born, and a mind-whirling look at what's to come. More chaos, lots of dirty hands hooked up to surprisingly clean consciences, and in the middle, a regular guy who never had a chance to be regular. A middle implies layers, and you get lots of them in 'Middle Man.' Few of us feel we are at the top, and nobody wants to be admit being on the bottom. If you're in the middle with Rollie Waters, you're in great company.

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