Friday, September 21, 2018

True Fiction

Lee Goldberg began his literary career in 1985 with his '.357 Vigilante' series of men’s adventure novels published under the pen name of Ian Ludlow. (Fun Fact: Goldberg chose the Ludlow name, so the books would be shelved next to Robert Ludlum.) The series lasted four installments and then disappeared without much fanfare. Thirty years later, Goldberg re-released the books under his own name as 'The Jury' series for modern audiences.

Everyone figured that was the last we’d ever hear from Ian Ludlow. Goldberg went on to have a successful career as a television writer and producer for shows including Diagnosis Murder, Psych, and Monk. He continued to write mystery and suspense novels until he struck literary gold by co-authoring a commercially-successful series of humorous mysteries with the already-famous Janet Evanovich.

Understanding this basic bio for Goldberg helps give the reader some context for the literary stunt he pulls in his latest novel, “True Fiction.” The plot is about a thriller author named Ian Ludlow who gets sucked into the kind of save-the-world adventure that the fictional Ludlow writes in his own novels. Goldberg penning an action thriller about an author named Ian Ludlow is like if Stephen King wrote a horror novel about an author named Richard Bachman.

“True Fiction” opens with a horrific terrorist attack in which a commercial jetliner is flown into a high-rise hotel causing mass carnage. The reader quickly learns that the attack was secretly orchestrated by a malevolent corporation named Blackthorn that aspires to be the recipient of a massive outsourcing contract from the CIA in the same manner that the Department of Defense outsourced duties to Blackwater for the Iraq War. Blackthorn sets up some innocent Muslims to take the fall for this 9/11 sequel, and the corporation puts itself in the position to crack the case for the U.S. government while showing off its superior private-sector intelligence abilities.

When we meet our hero, Ian Ludlow is at a sparsely-attended book signing in Seattle where he is promoting his new action novel. We learn that Ludlow writes thrillers in the same vein as the 'Jack Reacher' series, but the nebbish author is no hero himself. For the Seattle leg of his book tour, he is accompanied by an attractive escort (not that kind of escort) named Margo hired by the publisher to shepherd the author from one book signing to another.

When Ludlow learns about the circumstances surrounding the recent air attack on the hotel, he is taken aback because it perfectly mimics a storyline for a terrorist incident that he presented to the CIA at a “what-if” focus group years earlier. Ludlow becomes convinced that the recent mass-causality incident was actually orchestrated by the CIA as a false flag operation and that he is a marked man for knowing this fact.

This kicks off a breakneck exciting “couple on the run” story as Ludlow and Margo avoid assassins from Blackthorn while thinking they are actually being pursued a CIA kill squad. The cat-and-mouse scenes in Seattle were especially gratifying as Goldberg incorporates a lot of unique features of the city into the action.

Fans of men’s adventure paperbacks will find “True Fiction” to be filled with Easter eggs and references to the genre’s greatest hits, including 'The Executioner', 'James Bond', 'The Destroyer', and, if you pay close attention, '.357 Vigilante'. There’s also a fun backstory about Ludlow’s history of writing for crappy TV mystery and cop shows - a plot point that becomes important as the novel progresses - that recalls Goldberg’s own career trajectory. 

At times, it’s hard to figure out where Goldberg ends and Ludlow begins. We have an action-adventure novelist writing about an action-adventure novelist who becomes an action-adventure hero by drawing inspiration from his own action-adventure hero. It’s a house of mirrors, but it’s also a real blast to read. The book is written with real cinematic potential, and you can imagine this being a big-budget, Hollywood summer blockbuster one day

Goldberg toggles from violent, propulsive action into comic relief quite adeptly. “True Fiction” is both exciting and hilarious with no slow parts to weigh it down. The only criticism I can muster involves a scene towards the end of the book involving a car chase that veered too far into slapstick, but it didn’t derail the book for me. The samples of Ludlow’s own writing interspersed throughout the novel serve as a particularly hilarious send-up of the modern state of the action thriller genre.

Throughout the book, Goldberg pokes fun at the tropes and excesses of modern thrillers without ever descending into full farce. “True Fiction” is a successful author’s love letter to a genre he truly adores, and I was excited to see that Ian Ludlow is coming back for a second installment in 2019. In the meantime, be sure to check this one out as it was written just for a guy like you.

Highly recommended.