Tuesday, July 15, 2014

New Today from Taylor Stevens: THE CATCH

About twice a year I wish I lived near Texas ... and now is one of those times. Not for the climate, or the urban traffic, but for the presence of Taylor Stevens, talking with readers at her release events this week for THE CATCH, the fourth in the grimly satisfying suspense series that features Vanessa Michael Munroe -- better known simply as Munroe, for good reasons.

Lacking the Texas journey, I'll settle for re-reading THE CATCH. An advance copy arrived here a couple of months ago, and it was really hard to wait until the release month, so I gave in and devoured the book early ... and it's stayed with me ever since.

Munroe became an iconic character as of book 1 in the series, The Informationist. A multilingual expert in digesting information at a level that's of value to big corporations and syndicates, Munroe is also the product of an extremely abusive childhood, one that's given her good reason to prefer the anonymity of dressing like a slender young man, and made her -- for survival's sake -- highly proficient in martial arts and out-thinking very smart criminals and syndicates.

But books 2 and 3, The Innocent and The Doll, have further wounded, even crippled, Munroe emotionally, and at the opening of THE CATCH she's hiding in male guise, working for a small maritime security company in Djibouti, Africa, with a relatively simple commercial job to do. If she'd applied her brilliance to her own life -- granted, hard for any of us to do -- she might have realized the respite would be temporary. Events quickly overwhelm her best intentions, as her boss forces her into armed guard work on a ship bound for Kenya ... via the Somalian coast.

Following Taylor Stevens into the dark and violent menace of Somalian high-seas piracy is an exhilarating journey into today's "darkest Africa," where poverty and greed and vast chasms of opportunity create the ultimate criminal wonderland. Munroe's quick conclusion that a highjacking of the ship she's guarding isn't what it seems leads her to escape with a hostage, the ship's putative captain. But she's seriously wounded, unable to defend herself and her hostage with her usual skills, and even her quick linguistic gifts send her into increasing danger.

When Munroe finds an information broker who may be able to help her crack the multiple shells of criminal plans surrounding her ship's highjacking, she's inwardly elated but must stay in grim persona, driving a bargain for what she needs with this Somali hawaladar, broker of information and money:
"Not CIA?" he said.

She shook her head.

"What agency then?"

"None," she said. "Just an individual."

"With money to spare, and you speak my language."

She nodded.

"There's no way to guarantee you're telling the truth?"

"None," she said. "But I don't want anything from you that might incriminate you."

He shifted forward again, deeper against the desk than he had before, so that his face was closer to hers, his expression clouded with mistrust and accusation. "If there are no demands for ransom and the ship disappeared, where does your information come from? How do you know a ship was hijacked?"

"I was on it," she said. ... "If the hijacking was paid for by Somali money, then tell me nothing, return me half the money, and I'll be on my way. If it was foreign investment, then I only ask that you give me whatever rumors are passing through on the wind, and the payment is yours."
It's not that simple, of course, and Munroe's adaptations to being wounded and ill make her in some ways more like "the rest of us" for this adventure -- more vulnerable, more at risk, more dependent on friendship. Except ... her emotional wounds have cut her off from the very people she most trusts and needs, the ones who've worked with her and care about her, even if they don't always understand her. And in the midst of trying to stay alive and resolve the crimes and free up the people for whom she has taken responsibility, Munroe also needs to resolve her relationship with her past -- and future.

I'm grateful that I could stay in the cool green safety of the Vermont hills to read this one, even though I'd love to hear Stevens talk about her research in person (she often does so online; best bet is her Facebook feed, where she shares links to some of her appearances). Today's Somalian piracy and the intricacies of Muslim life in Africa also intrigue me, so I like finding them in THE CATCH. Most of all, though, it's Munroe I enjoy and want more of: a wounded superhero of a woman, caught up in international intrigue, struggling for breathing space and for the capacity to trust.

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