Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Andrew Croome's Midnight Empire

It was a lively meeting when we met to discuss our April book, Midnight Empire, with its author Andrew Croome. There's nothing like having an author present to get discussion going. Midnight Empire, essentially a spy thriller in the Le Carre tradition, is rather outside our usual literary fiction fare, but it fit our decision to focus on Canberra in our reading this Centenary year. Croome currently lives in Canberra, and the main character in the novel, Daniel, comes from Canberra, though the book is set in Las Vegas and Europe.

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin
Croome told us that the inspiration for the book was drones. Daniel Carter is a 26-year-old computer programmer whose company's encryption program has been bought by the US government for its drone program. Daniel is sent by his company to Creech Airforce Base, out of Las Vegas, to install the software and make sure it runs properly. Suddenly he finds himself at war, albeit sitting at a computer terminal in the American desert, a long way from Afghanistan where the actual war is being waged. This though is the point Croome wanted to explore: the idea that in modern drone-driven warfare, you can be at war during the day, in your office, killing people, and come home at night to bathe your kids! Unlike the airforce pilots and CIA agents Daniel is working with, he has not been trained for war. He is, in fact, a rather naive young man who, through most of the novel, still feels like "a boy". He's not though, and gradually he becomes mired in some dirty business.

Running parallel to the political/professional story of Daniel's work is his personal story. He comes to Las Vegas for work against the wishes of his long-term girlfriend Hannah. Their relationship has been floundering and this, to her mind, poor decision of his is the catalyst for her to break up. Daniel is disappointed, but it leaves him free to meet someone new - and he does, of course. He meets Ania at the poker table. This is Vegas after all and Daniel decides to take up poker to fill in some after work hours. Besides his interest in the recent world-wide poker-playing phenomenon, Croome told us that he saw poker as a way for Daniel to define and develop his masculinity.

In terms of the plot, things start, as you would expect for the genre, to go awry. An agent double-crosses them, and the drones are sent in to Peshawar to take out their targets. At the same time, pilots start dying mysteriously in Vegas. Daniel becomes perturbed about the morality of what he sees and takes some actions that, let us say, the CIA would not like. Meanwhile, his life with Ania becomes complicated when she tells him her brutal husband has come to Vegas looking for her. Daniel is torn between his work and his personal responsibilities, and starts crossing even more lines from which he may not be able to return. As we read on, we are not sure who to trust or believe. Is or isn't Ania the traditional spy-tale Femme Fatale? And are the CIA starting to suspect him? Suffice it to say that Daniel ends up on the run playing poker - off the grid, as Croome described it - throughout Europe. And that's about all I'll say about the plot.

Our discussion, with Croome, led us down all sorts of paths. We discussed the construction of the book with one Minervan feeling that it was more about plot than character. She wanted to know more about Daniel, wanted his character to be developed further. Another Minervan felt that having Daniel's relationship break up at the beginning was a clever device. It showed that Daniel had been given the chance to change, but hadn't taken it, and it also set him free for new relationships. Most of us felt the set up was plausible, and one member said she felt sorry for Daniel who was too naive to realise that he couldn't "fix" things as easily and simply as he thought. A couple of members talked of how "visual" the book is, and liked the strong transitions between Daniel's loft in Vegas and the airforce base. Croome, we discovered, did spend some time in Vegas researching the book. Several of us found the Poker sections too technical and wondered whether this was more of a "man-thing". Croome responded that he tried to make human points about the play rather than get too carried away with the recording the technical play itself. We could see that, but probably still felt there was a little more play than we needed! And the ending was to most of us more ambiguous than Croome intended - but we gathered that we weren't the only readers to feel this. Hopefully, Croome enjoyed our perspectives and took them in the right spirit. I think he did.

The discussion then turned back to drones and their military and civilian uses - leading to a discussion about privacy. We of course had no answers, but Croome believes that we need to be aware of the increasing incursions into our right to privacy if we are going to have any chance of controlling/protecting it. Some of us, I suspect, feel it might be a lost cause!

Croome mentioned a few authors/books that he likes, including Ian McEwan, Don DeLillo (that was intriguing) and Kevin Powers' novel, Yellow birds, about the impact of war on soldiers and those at home.

It was a good night's discussion. There's nothing better than a book that stimulates discussion about it, itself, and then leads us onto talk about the wider issues it draws from. Midnight empire proved to be such a book and we felt privileged to have the author with us to contribute to both discussions. Thanks Andrew for giving up your time to talk with us.

2 comments:

  1. It was a lively discussion Sue, and I learnt some fascinating things about the poker playing world, and Andrew's research in Las Vagas and the personalities he encountered there. Andrew discussed the difference between this book and Document Z, where in Midnight Empire he had the freedom to define the plot his own way, whereas in Document Z the discipline of the historical facts (The Pertrov Affair during the Cold War in Australia)
    It was great to spread our reading into this new thriller genre, which genuinely kept me reading, and at times on the edge of my seat with suspense. I liked the fact that Daniel was a naive hero, as I think he symbolises our vulnerability, and enables us to feel more concern on his part, when things go dodgy.
    A great night.

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  2. Thanks Kate for adding your perspective. I agree re his comments on the two books and am including that in my other post! There was so much to cover in our discussion ... it was fast and furious with some great ideas raised.

    Love your comment on the value of the naive "hero".

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