by Leonard Gill
"He'd spent months preparing for tonight, and his load out reflected this."
"He" is Court Gentry, aka the Gray Man, and "tonight" he is hanging by a rope ladder from a microlight hang glider that he's also piloting. Then he's breaking and entering the heavily guarded dacha of his target, Russian mob boss Gregor Ivanovic Sidorenko.
Gentry's "load out" consists of: a Glock 19 nine-millimeter pistol in a thigh rig with an attached silencer; two cables — one a climbing rope; the other a bungee cord — spooled around electric spring retractors attached to Gentry's climbing harness; two black-bladed combat knives on his utility belt; in Gentry's backpack: extra clothing and a medical kit; on his chest rig: ammunition magazines and a single-shot flare gun loaded with a smoke grenade; on Gentry's right ankle: a Glock 26 subcompact pistol; and in a freezer bag also inside his backpack: raw bear meat. Tonight, Sidorenko's quiet evening spent going over documents does not end well — for Sidorenko.
That will come as no surprise to fans of Mark Greaney's fast-paced fiction, including his latest Gray Man thriller, Dead Eye (in trade paperback from Berkley Books). What's in it for readers? Learning how in the hell the Gray Man (a U.S. expatriate assassin for hire) is going to get things done — and survive. And then survive the man who's targeting him: Dead Eye, aka Russ Whitlock.
But not so fast. It isn't all nonstop. There's room in Dead Eye for some serious soul-searching too. As when Gentry asks himself (italics in the original): "What are you, Gentry?" A few pages later: "What am I doing?"
But he does do it some more in Dead Eye, and he does it all over the place (Russia and Estonia, for starters) alongside others like him: among them, Ruth Ettinger of Israeli intelligence, Mossad, and Yanis Alvey of Mossad's "action" arm, Metsada. Turns out, Ettinger and Alvey have done their share of tracking "terrorists, hit men, and nut jobs" too.
Is all this over the top? Mark Greaney wouldn't disagree. But he does it right — the hardware, the action, the suspense, and, yes, some downtime soul-searching — and right enough for Greaney to have formed a big following for his Gray Man series (beginning with The Gray Man in 2009, then On Target and Ballistic, and now Dead Eye). And right enough for Greaney to have caught the attention of the late Tom Clancy, with whom Greaney co-authored Locked On, Threat Vector, and, new this December, Command Authority (Putnam).
"Yes, these stories are definitely over the top," Greaney said recently by phone. "And even though there has to be a suspension of disbelief, I like to earn the reader's suspension of disbelief by playing it straight. Gentry's physical injuries: There are repercussions. He's had some problems with addiction — painkillers. The psychological toll: In the real world, I'm sure Gentry has full-on PTSD, if not worse.
"I want to deal with these stories head-on. I want them to be as close to reality as I'm willing to play it but keep the story moving."
And Greaney does keep it moving. Doesn't mean, though, that he plays it strictly according to formula. Each Gray Man novel presents its challenges.
"I always set out wanting to make each new book different from the others. Each one with a different focus," Greaney said.
"In Dead Eye, you see all sides of the story. It has more twists and turns. Everybody has two or three agendas — even the people who are working very hard to kill the Gray Man. I wanted to create a story with a whole bunch of different actors: Israelis, Russians, the CIA, military teams, private contractors. And then you have Dead Eye. He has his own motivations."
Greaney, with nine books to his name in the past five or so years, has his own ways of research — one of them, world travel. For Dead Eye alone, he went to Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany. In Belgium, he met with a member of that country's federal police force who took him behind the scenes to security at the Brussels airport, and he accompanied an undercover police officer in that city. Co-authoring with Tom Clancy has allowed him a very useful backstage pass.
"I meet a lot of people who brag about how they never read books … novels. But when they hear the name Tom Clancy, they want to help. They're fascinated that someone like me is interested in a specific aspect of what they do. They're not passing classified information to me, obviously, but my meeting with them is a one-stop place for me to get good, open-source material. It's become the most interesting part of the entire writing process for me ... the people I've met in the past three years, working with Tom Clancy."
Those meetings also help Greaney dig deeper into his characters, because personal experience has shown him how often his first guess about the human element has been wrong.
"Not that I thought they were all snake eaters," Greaney said of meeting the real-world counterparts who have helped to inspire some of his fictional operatives. In fact, one such personality was "diametrically opposite to what a stereotype would be." But both in fact and in fiction, Greaney also understands that these men (and women) are there to do a job.
And with Tom Clancy's death on October 1st of this year, what of the future of Clancy's characters, including Jack Ryan?
"I've met with Tom's wife and family. They're really good people. They appreciate Tom's readership. Hopefully, they'll go forward with it. It might be tomorrow. It might be years from now. I don't know."
These days, Greaney does know that he's switching gears. He's writing his first screenplay — a spec script, which means it's something he hasn't yet sold. But it's based on an idea he had for a book, and he was ready to go after the story from a different angle. Script-writing has been, according to Greaney, fun:
"I joke that if I didn't have a deadline, I'd never finish my books. And that's pretty true. This screenplay I'm writing — 25,000 words — is going to be my first, and it's going to take me the same amount of time it takes me to write a 150,000-word novel."
Of that screenplay: "It's not going to be quirky. It's not going to be Quentin Tarantino. There's a template to doing these things. Yes, you can push boundaries here and there, but I'm certainly not trying to reinvent the wheel."
Nor is Greaney looking to live outside the city where he grew up: Memphis. The "machinery" of the publishing and movie worlds, whether in New York or Los Angeles, is fine without his being right there in the middle of it. But he is moving:
"I'm happy here. And now I'm tied to Memphis more than ever, because I just bought a house. I've got a mortgage. Memphis is home, and it's going to be home for the next 30 years." •
Mark Greaney will be signing Dead Eye at The Booksellers at Laurelwood on Thursday, December 5th, from 6 to 7 p.m. For more on the author, go to his website at markgreaneybooks.com.