To those who lurk in the shadows, he’s known as the Gray Man. He is a legend in the covert realm, moving silently from job to job, accomplishing the impossible and then fading away. And he always hits his target. Always.
But there are forces more lethal than Gentry in the world. Forces like money. And power. And there are men who hold these as the only currency worth fighting for. In their eyes, Gentry has just outlived his usefulness.
But Court Gentry is going to prove that, for him, there’s no gray area between killing for a living and killing to stay alive….
So first, an unexpected admission: I had fun with this book. Simple fun but fun nonetheless. The action was spectacular, the pace was unrelenting and not once did I consider setting the book aside. Why? Well, it seemed impossible that the book would work if our hero failed or died in the attempt and yet the only possible outcomes seemed to be that he would fail or die in the attempt. I needed to be there to see how this ended. Oh and I really, really, really wanted to see the bad guy get the kicking he so richly deserved.
Why is this an unexpected admission? Because any other book that was written as badly as this one would have been set aside before the halfway mark. Mark Greaney’s writing has all the charm of an instruction manual translated into English from Japanese and printed without adequate proofreading. I found myself being irritated at being told the make and model number of every gun and aircraft used in the book. It had the taint of the pseudo competence of a keyboard warrior who obsesses over his copies of ‘Guns & Ammo’ as if they were copies of ‘Playboy’. I also found myself wondering if our hero would ever be given anything to say. I think the most frequently recurring line in a Jack Reacher novel is, ‘Reacher said nothing.’ Gentry makes Reacher seem like a loquacious philosopher.
Two things rescue Greaney’s writing: he really knows how to write action scenes that are vivid, exciting and engaging (this is important as it feels as though action scenes make up 75% of the text), and he has total confidence in his linear narrative structure.
The action scenes are like the kind of graphic novel that is drawn using only primary colours and bold strokes, it makes an impact but it’s nuance free. He also sets the action in well-known parts of Europe so that they provide dramatic local colour (although the idea of Swiss Police, even the local guys, being such poor shots stretched my belief to breaking point).
The narrative structure is the backbone of the book. Gentry is on a ‘Lord Of The Rings’ style quest with Lloyd as Sauron in his Normandy tower, sending
Orcs Special Forces kill teams to take Gentry’s head as he quests travels across Europe. Gentry is a Paladin, bloodied but unbowed. The two little girls Lloyd is holding hostage are the damsels in distress that Gentry is honour bound to rescue. Gentry is a video game knight working up through level after level of life-threatening conflict so that he can reach the tower and rescue the maidens.
The pace is inexorable. The body count in enormous (I’d wager that the number of people Gentry kills or gets killed exceeds the number of paragraphs of dialogue he has in the book) and the damage to Gentry would have placed a mere mortal in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
I eventually understood that Gentry takes damage at each level, not just because this makes each conflict more exciting but so that, when he reaches the final level, his powers are so diminished that victory has now become an against-all-odds Hail Mary task. Why is this weakness necessary? Because, by the time you’ve reached halfway through the book, it’s clear that Gentry is a cold-blooded, highly efficient, almost totally unstoppable assassin. Traditionally, this would make him the villain, not the hero. Other writers might have tried to make Gentry into a cool, ironic, internally-conflicted, morally ambivalent anti-hero. Greeney rejects all that. He makes Gentry the good guy by making the bad guys so irredeemably bad that Gentry looks like a saint by comparison and then by making Gentry so weak that he becomes a noble figure, ready to sacrifice himself on the altar of duty rather than just a version of the Terminator turning up for revenge.
I think this narrative structure works not just because it’s a classic but because Greaney believes in it completely. This is a story free of irony, humour or introspection. Lloyd won’t stop until he can save himself by handing over Gentry’s head. Gentry won’t stop until the little girls are rescued. End of.
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘The Gray Man’. Jay Snyder’s narration made the whole thing more fun. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.
Overall though, I’d recommend skipping the book and watching the Netflix version. I haven’t seen it but its cinematography has to be an improvement on Greaney’s inappropriately formal, contraction-free English-as-a-second-language sounding prose.