Liquid Gold is the first Lachlan Fox book that I have picked up. Remiss of me (hangs head in shame), I know – local author writing spy fiction, I should have been all over it. This is the fourth book in the series after Fox Hunt, Patriot Act and Blood Oil (and preceeds the recently released Red Ice). The strange thing is that I feel that I have walked into the series at an odd juncture. Readers who have followed the series will know exactly who Lachlan Fox is, and what he is capable of. Myself, however, as a ‘newbie’ wasn’t so sure. The story (and the character for that matter) aren’t served up with a cracking beginning. It is almost fifty pages into the story before any action takes place (and this concerns another character). Prior to this initial burst of action, there are a steady interchange of chapters outlining various disparate characters and their movements. Of course, this buildup is setting the scene for what is to come – but it does make for an awfully slow start. However, by the time the story hits Spain, the bullets are flying and the action (and blood) is flowing thick and fast.
Lachlan Fox is a retired Australian soldier, but despite his hard-ass military skills, he now works as a journalist for the respected GSR network. His current story is an investigation into a water project in Pakistan, being built by an organisation called UMBRA Corp. The head of UMBRA is a Russian businessman named Roman Babich. It would appear the both Babich and UMBRA were featured in the previous Lachlan Fox novel, Blood Oil.
Babich’s diabolical scheme, which on the surface doesn’t seem so diabolical, is to build a hydro engineering plant in Northern Pakistan. The problem is that it will draw water from the underground water table that crosses into India, a country that is already experiencing severe drought. Furthermore, Babich’s project is not about creating a better Pakistan either; it is purely for profit. Fox intends to expose Babich’s and UMBRA’s project for what it is – a humanitarian nightmare – and as a result, Babich decides to strike back. Firstly he begins to silence the people who have worked on the project who may have been in contact with Fox. One of these people, is Omar Hasif, a vital cog in the project, who finds his family threatened after a bomb is planted in his car. Babich doesn’t leave it at that. He also arranges for his two devoted, but psychotic henchmen, Vladimir Kolesnik and Petro Sirko to assassinate Fox.
With the backing of the FBI and the assistance of a operative named Hutchinson, Fox decides to go in after Babich, and bring him down, well aware that Babich’s killers are after him. In fact, Fox is allowing himself to be used as bait to draw Babich out – and hopefully make some mistake, so he can finally be held accountable for his clandestine activities. First stop for Fox is Spain and from the moment he arrives, the story kicks into high gear, and the action that the story had hinted at for so long, finally comes into play.
In the end, once it got cracking I did enjoy this story. But I have one gripe. When reading the story, the thing that annoyed me the most was the large amount of product placement. I realise Ian Fleming, the father of modern thriller writing (and many other authors before and since), revelled in name dropping and conspicuous product placement. But Fleming’s novels were written in an age before the rampant consumerism of today.
The difference between Fleming’s product placement and Phelan’s boils down to the difference in their fictional characters. As you know, Bond was a tool, sent out by M to carry out the British Government’s missions. Right or wrong didn’t really come into it – although Bond wouldn’t be quite the hero he has become if his missions weren’t portrayed as being just. But generally it wasn’t Bond’s job to decide who was good or bad (or question his superiors). Also his missions were dangerous, and as such he could be killed at anytime. And generally that is where Fleming’s product placement comes into his stories. It is Bond indulging in the high-life – enjoying a few luxuries that the average man could not afford – because who knows when he die in the line of duty.
Lachlan Fox, however is a different kettle of fish. He is very much his own man. As a journalist, he chooses the stories he goes after and the men (and companies) that he brings down. If Fox wanted, he could choose rather mundane stories and live a rather uneventful life. Fox does not have that same sense of ‘sacrificial duty’ that Bond possesses. If Fox puts himself in harms way (even if it is for the greater good of the global community), it is entirely of his own volition. To this end, the products that Fox surrounds himself with aren’t luxuries, but are lifestyle. And they aren’t particularly exclusive. The reality is, as a reader of a fast paced thriller, I do not need to know what brand of coffee maker Fox owns, nor the brand of hoodie he wears when he goes jogging.
For example, here’s a description of the GSR’s Chief of Staff, Faith Williams – from pages 69-70:
She was dressed in her usual fashion-runway-meets-corporate wear, stunning and perfectly put together: crisp white Donna Karan shirt, navy pinstripe Ralph Lauren pencil skirt, and Jimmy Choos in a red that rivalled her flame coloured hair…’
I actually had a quick word to Markus Wolff from the Stasi website about the consumerism in Liquid Gold, and he suggested that Phelan was trying make Fox hip and identifiable with younger readers.
‘The thing is that he is aiming at the teen market and saying this guy is cool by the brands he wears and thus you can identify with him. It is simply connecting in a FHM way.’
The ‘younger reader’ theory may be true – Phelan has just began a series called Alone which is aimed at younger readers. But then Liquid Gold is also littered with movie quotes, such as ‘...teardrops in rain‘, and ‘...the cornerstone of every nutritious breakfast‘. The first is from Blade Runner, released in 1982, and the second quote is from Pulp Fiction, released in 1994 (Mmmm Big Kahuna Burger!). These quotes would mean very little to anyone under the age of thirty. So I am not sure if there is a muddled ageist duality to this book, or if I am a curmudgeonly old geezer who just doesn’t get it.
That aside, this Lachlan Fox adventure is a passable time killer with enough action and brains to satisfy most spy-fi fans. From the blurb:
WATER PROMISES TO BE TO THE 21st CENTURY WHAT OIL WAS TO THE TWENTIETH…
LIQUID GOLD is a high-octane thriller featuring Lachlan Fox. Lachlan Fox has made a career out of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a shore assault specialist in an Australian Navy Clearance Diver Team, he often came up against bad guys and even worse odds. Now working as an investigative journalist for an independent news organisation he doesn t back away from uncovering the big stories…global conspiracies, rogue secret agents, terrorist cells…
With his best friend Alister Gammaldi, Fox is caught up in the corrupt world of international politics and arms races and, it seems, as the earth feels the impact of global warming that the commodity everyone is after is water. Lachlan discovers some people will do anything to control it. When he exposes their secrets he finds himself back in the front line and facing his strongest enemy yet.