It’s easy to assume that threats to national security and integrity only come from foreign shores. Dressing terrorists, the boogeymen of our time, in the clothes and skin color of minorities softens the reality. There will always be dissidents, malcontents, and flat-out crazy people within our own borders, working inside our own systems, either to dismantle something they see as wrong or just to get themselves ahead somehow. Fighting these threats can be a dirty, underhanded, downright soulless affair. But if the country’s integrity is to remain intact along with its security, some men must make sure certain lines are never crossed. Simon Parks is one of those men, and he is our subject as the protagonist of Charlie Cole’s Headhunters.
Simon works for Blackthorn, a deep-cover internal anti-terrorist group working in the United States to combat domestic terrorism. While most of his duties are concerned with finding new talent for this work, his job keeps him at the office for very long hours, even days at a time, and his wife decides to leave him over it. In an attempt to get her back, Simon inadvertently causes a fatal car crash, leaving him a widower and his children without a mother. Heartbroken, he resigns from Blackthorn and tries to start life over in a new city, as a headhunter for a different firm. But his old boss isn’t about to let a resource like Simon go without a fight, not while there’s still work to do, and Simon’s new boss is not all he seems, either. Intrigue comes at Simon from all sides, with what’s left of his family caught in the crossfire.
Novels like this work or fall apart based primarily on the construction of the protagonist. A driven, stoic, nearly super-human badass (or a team of them) can carry an empty summer action flick, but not so much a modern thriller. Thankfully, Cole gives Simon a great deal of humanity and humility. He questions his actions even as they’re being undertaken, apologizes several times to friends when they become involved in his life and its trials, and continually reminds the reader that he’s “just a guy.” While it’s a realistic reaction to the sort of shenanigans that occur to Simon, he doesn’t have the difficulties Jack Ryan did in early Tom Clancy novels. He’s perfectly competent as an unarmed combatant, marksman, and strategist, even as doubts gnaw away at him.
It’s pretty clear that this is a debut novel, with some of the plot developments easy to predict and some of Simon’s abilities and resources seeming too good to be true. However, Cole has a background in the areas within which the story takes place, and while I’m certain artistic license has been taken throughout the novel, none of the flaws make the novel difficult to read or hard to believe. Simon has enough bravery to carry the action, enough humanity to invoke sympathy, and enough humility to avoid becoming insufferable. The story moves at a good pace, action scenes pop with a good dose of realism, there’s plenty of twists in the tale, and Charlie even threw in a bit of romance, presented tastefully and at the right times to allow us breathers between the tension.
Fans of tales such as 24 and The Bourne Identity will be right at home here. Charlie Cole is looking to be a decent successor to Clancy and Ludlum, and Headhunters is a fun and engrossing read. He has plenty of room to grow, which is actually exciting. As good as Headhunters is, his next yarn should be even better.