The Second Horseman
by Kyle Mills

Reviewed by
Emad El-Din Aysha



Intriguing, entertaining and frighteningly plausible. That, in a nutshell, describes Kyle Mills’ political thriller, The Second Horseman, an ‘airport reading rack’ novel about a nuclear holocaust facing the Middle East as a unquestioningly pro-Israel America stokes Islamic fanaticism. Despite some loose ends and plot hiccups, this is by far the best of Mills’ works and one of the best of its genre. I don’t just say this on account of the politics, which, as an Arab Muslim with a British education, I am inclined to agree with – he needles Arabs often enough and not always without cause – but because of the level of artistry on display.

With all due respect to sensitive American authors, symbolism, subtlety and irony are not usually their strong points – all of which do lift The Second Horseman well above run-of-the-mill US thrillers nowadays, even if a bit below the enviable level achieved by the best British spy-novels. The last American novelist who combined literate political themes and nail-biting suspenseful action was Robert Ludlum. It’s fair to say that Mills is inheriting his throne, and taking a more genial political direction too. Still, this somewhat crude literary state of affairs is hardly the fault of Yank authors, given the vicissitudes of the publishing industry, the critics and, ultimately, the American readership. I don’t claim to have entirely deciphered every implied allegory here, mind you, but that in itself is a healthy sign. How many of us can completely figure out a John le Carré novel or even expect to?


So long as symbolism doesn’t get in the way of the entertainment value, and the story line is chockfull of relevant themes and pungent observations, that should be good enough to allay carping critics. After all, many of Mills’ predictions in Sphere of Influence, the first book of his I read, have come unnervingly true, as have some of the more ominous possibilities in The Second Horseman. For example, Mills posits that the Israelis pull out of Gaza, do everything to make sure Gaza implodes, and then amass their troops on the border to reenter Gaza because of its allegedly inexplicable violence.


Then there is what Mills foresees as a growing Al-Qaeda penetration of the western Levant – Syria, Lebanon, Palestine – alongside the utter failure of the US intelligence and law enforcement apparatuses to deal effectively with terrorism for the usual litany of reasons: bureaucratic infighting, corruption, cultural myopia, lobbying and vested interests. And don’t forget the vast nuclear proliferation threat posed by the ex-Soviet bloc - woefully neglected in Washington - and the related problem of prevalence of  an implacable Cold War-mindset; focusing too much on state-sponsored terrorism (their state-sponsored terrorism, that is, not ours or our allies) instead of on wily footloose terrorists armed with rogue nukes.


And that’s only the half of the factors that come into play as Mills’ tracks the inevitable logic of what may very well happen as a result of this combustible stew. The novel, in short, sounds warning bells about what is in store if the US remains on its current course, a sorry fate highlighted tragically by the intriguing relationship of liberal President Morris and his Arab American National Security Advisor, Edwin Hamdi. They spend their political careers trying to undo the mistakes of their saber-toothed predecessors only to be faced ultimately by a wicked fate accompli. Too much has already been set in motion and so events will follow their own malevolent course, with the world spinning out of control.


In one disturbingly plausible scene President Morris finds himself forced to bomb Syria so that he can then pursue a subsequent conciliatory policy towards Arabs and Muslims that Hamdi shrewdly urges. What has transpired is that a loner, who happens to be a Syrian with no organizational affiliation, blows himself up next to a synagogue and the President must respond aggressively to placate the public and you-know-which lobby. In line with present day events, Hamdi protests to the President that Syria can’t be held accountable for its porous borders with Iraq given America’s own problems with Mexico, a point Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has made on more than one occasion.


The novel’s storytelling and character construction really bring out the prophetic political content. In the opening scene, for example, Brandon Vale, incarcerated jewel thief extraordinaire, plays poker with an African-American inmate with an Arab/Muslim name – Kassem – and a tattoo of hooded KKKman dangling from a hangman’s rope with a broken neck. If an American can embrace Islam as a protest against racism, what do you think the reaction of people who already are Muslims and not Americans is going to be to mistreatment? There’s a TV set in the room blaring away about the US fatalities in Iraq and the various terrorist incidents in the Middle East, something that doesn’t interests Vale in the slightest, him and most of the inmates who are into life – and prison – for the money.


Vale is the stereotypical self-absorbed American, which is a perfect psychological profile for the masterminds who groom him for a crucial job– rob Las Vegas to buy rogue Ukrainian nukes off the global market (because Al-Qaeda’s out to get them). Vale isn’t so much amoral as non-moral; he’s never hurt anyone, as he repeatedly protests to his captors. He doesn’t bother with high sounding ideals and political causes, a trait that distracts most Americans from the immense damage their government often causes abroad but also exonerates them from the charge of imperial designs or power lust.


Interestingly, the prison-guard – Daly – who ‘releases’ Brandon for Brandon’s future paymasters, is an envious redneck figure. He’s the kind who hates slightly better off, educated whites as much as he hates ‘niggers’. His hatred is misplaced since he should be joining hands with the likes of Brandon and Kassem against their common enemy, wealthy white men who see all those beneath them as scum or stooges. Filling out the minority quota is Brandon’s immediate superior, the lovely, partly Latina Catherine ‘Juarez’. Her father was an FBI agent but she only got a chance to go to college and then into the national security apparatus thanks to her mentor, Richard Scanlon, the very man who railroaded Brandon to prison on trumped up charges so as to use him later for a ‘mission.’ Ironically, robbing Las Vegas was Vale’s original plan.  Scanlon, a former FBI honcho, has gone into the pricier private sector, providing contract security and intelligence services for the government.


Scanlon is sort of a fixit man, disillusioned with government incompetence and corruption in the war on terror and so trying to do his best to stem this woeful tide from his private sector perch. Hence, he allies with Hamdi, and is by far the most complex character here, and most likely the second horseman of the apocalypse; the one who spreads war and devastation. He’s half-American, half-Egyptian, a professor who’s dedicated his life to finding peace in the Middle East and has had to scratch his way to the top in what his considers to be the country of ‘the Jew’. Not that he has any theological quibbles with them. He’s has no religious convictions whatsoever and plans to do something horrendous to the Middle East with the 12 warheads the Ukrainian mob are peddling on the black market.


If anything, he’s the quintessential American taking the cowboy approach of getting rid of the problem by blowing it away. I’ll say no more so as not to spoil it for readers. He is doing this so the US stops having to suffer terror attack in response to its pro-Israeli position - not that Hamdi likes the Arabs much either. At least he respects the Israelis for their efficiency and determination. Hamdi, half-Egyptian, is probably meant to embody the half-hearted nature of America’s alliance with Egypt, the main ‘moderate’ Arab state, and how Egypt still comes out worse in comparison with Israel. And he also highlights what could happen if this favoritism remains unchecked: namely, moderates turn into extremists, and for non-religious, purely political reasons.


There’s a hint of this outcome in the cases of Hamdi’s two chief Arab-American CIA henchman, Jamal Yusef and Ramez. They believe in America and want a peaceful solution to Arab problems but are egged along by anger at the way they are treated by WASP superiors; namely, people like Paul Lowe, the CIA director. Lowe’s a Cold War relic, unable, as Mills puts it , ‘to think outside the box.’ Scanlon belongs to the same generation but he got out soon enough to realize how bureaucratically nearsighted the intelligence community is when combating terrorism. As for the commander in chief, President Morris, he’s a good man by all counts, what an American President ‘should’ be – evenhanded – but sadly can’t really be because political pressures won’t allow it.

 

As for the criminals, the two Ukrainian mobsters – a brother team, one former military, the other a career mobster – represent the neglected threat posed by a former Soviet Union now that it’s given up on ideology and taken up America’s brand of unadulterated self-interest. Their calculated hypocrisy is that they are Jews selling nuclear warheads to an al-Qaeda splinter cell, even if it means endangering Israel. Well, the younger one, Pyotr, does take issue, at first, unlike his hard-nosed elder brother Grigori. As for Vale’s ‘crew’, all military and security types provided by Scanlon, they’re the ‘honest criminals’, who take some care not to hurt anyone (as Vale insists) which is a lot more than anyone can say about the government flunkies they work for.

 

By the end, Brandon Vale learns to stop feeling guilt for his lifestyle, given the mountains of dead that always arise when you work for ‘the good guys.’ He quietly goes back to his life of crime, after getting paid handsomely and acquiring a new identity. Catherine Juarez joins him in his new life and, one suspects, future criminal endeavors. The implication in the closing scene is that if Americans minded their own business and stick to their apathetic, non-ideological lifestyle, maybe the world would be a better place.