Michael Walsh is a familiar name to National Review Online readers. And if he isn’t, David Kahane, his Hollywood-liberal alter ego, is. Walsh is the author of a new thriller, Shock Warning, the third of a trilogy, which he discusses with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Three books in, do you get tired with your lead character? Or do you get overly attached to him? Do you know him better than you know yourself?
MICHAEL WALSH: I think I’m still getting to know Devlin, who, by definition, is a mysterious sort of chap. He’s the orphaned son of two intelligence agents, who watched his parents die in the 1985 Rome airport massacre and who was raised abroad and off the grid by the control agent who just might have been his mother’s lover. He’s the perfect spy — anonymous, adept at languages and weapons, technologically sophisticated, and lethal in a fight. “Devlin,” in fact, isn’t even his real name — it’s simply the code name by which he’s known to the three people with high enough security clearances to operate him: the president, the secretary of defense, and the director of the National Security Agency — who just so happens to be his “stepfather.”
He’s let his guard down only once and allowed himself to fall in love with an Iranian operative named Maryam, about whom he knows next to nothing — and he doesn’t want to know. He never runs a security check on her. Imprisoned by circumstances, Devlin sees Maryam as his one chance at freedom and at a normal life, and how well that relationship works out is one of the through lines in the first three books — the “Skorzeny Trilogy,” named after the bad guy. But with at least two books left in the series, there’s still a lot of Devlin left to explore. He is very strange, though.
LOPEZ: What does Devlin have that Jack Bauer doesn’t?
WALSH: That’s a good question. I’ve never seen a minute of 24. Writing non-stop doesn’t leave one much time for television.
LOPEZ: How much research does it take to be writing about nuclear medicine and things?
WALSH: Nuclear medicine was easy — I had a heart attack in the middle of writing the second book in the series, Early Warning, and as part of that process I’ve spent some time being irradiated for stress tests. You know the old saying: Write what you know.
There’s a prolonged sequence in the Department of Nuclear Medicine at a major Manhattan hospital in Shock Warning as the cops desperately search for a hidden radioactive device, which ought to scare the hell out of everybody, since if you’re going to plant a suitcase nuke somewhere, a hospital’s as good a place as any.
LOPEZ: Why reference 9/11, an open wound? And as for future attacks: Can’t you fiction writers give New York a break?
WALSH: It’s hard to write books about international terrorism without acknowledging 9/11. And while most of America — including, sadly, the residents of New York City — may have forgotten the horrors of that day, the intelligence agencies and, most especially, the NYPD certainly have not, and they play a prominent role in both Early Warning and Shock Warning.
One of the major characters in both novels is Capt. Francis X. Byrne of the Counter-Terrorism Unit. Frankie and his evil brother, Tom (now deputy director of the FBI), appeared in my first novel, Exchange Alley, at lesser ranks. If I had been an NYPD officer from Queens, I might have been a lot like Frankie — minus the rococo personal baggage, of course. Who knows, I may spin him back off into his own series down the line; the readers certainly seem to like him.
But lest you think that the “Devlin” books are New York–centric, not so. Hostile Intent opens in Edwardsville, Ill., and moves back and forth across the country and to Europe, where Emanuel Skorzeny plots the destruction of the West from his redoubt in the old abbey of Clairvaux, now a maximum-security French prison housing Carlos the Jackal. Early Warning’s main action sequence is an all-out Bombay-style assault on Times Square, which I wrote well before the failed Times Square bombing attempt, but includes an opening chase through Budapest and a fateful meeting in that same city at the end. (I also propose a solution to the “unheard melody” of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, just for cryptological fun.) And Shock Warning mostly takes place in California, Azerbaijan, and Iran, which is where the good end happily and the bad unhappily, more or less.
Plus, there are loads of Washington, D.C., scenes, as we chart the maturation of the president, Jeb Tyler, as he masters the intel game and tries to beat back a reelection challenge from the charismatic Angela Hassett. Shock Warning ends on Election Day, but don’t ask me who wins because we won’t find out until the next installment.