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Andrew Croome, Midnight empire (Review)

May 2, 2013
Andrew Croome, Midnight Empire

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

Andrew Croome’s latest novel Midnight empire is yet another read this year that is outside my usual fare. I read it because of my reading group’s focus this Centenary year on Canberra writers. It wasn’t a big ask, though, because I had read and enjoyed his first novel, Document Z. While both deal with spies, they are very different novels: Document Z is historical fiction, while Midnight empire is a thriller. I wonder what Croome will do next. Romance? Interestingly, Croome, who attended my reading group’s discussion, suggested that Midnight empire is more like a first book. This is because when writing Document Z, he could always go back to the historical record when he stalled, but with Midnight empire he had to rely on his own ideas to keep the story going. Croome told us that the inspiration for the book was drones and, developing that, the idea that with drones people can conduct “war” from their office desk. What does this mean for our psyches, he wonders. And where is the line between who is at war and who isn’t? But more on that later.

First, a little about the plot. The protagonist, Daniel Carter, is a rather naive 26-year-old computer programmer whose company’s encryption algorithm has been bought by the US government for its drone program. Daniel is sent by his Canberra-based company to Creech Airforce Base, outside Las Vegas, to install the software and make sure it runs properly. Suddenly he finds himself at war, albeit sitting at a computer terminal in the American desert, a long way from Afghanistan and Pakistan where the actual war is being waged. Unlike the airforce pilots and CIA agents Daniel is working with, he has not been trained for war.

Parallelling the story of Daniel’s professional life is his personal one. He comes to Las Vegas despite the wishes of his long-term girlfriend Hannah. Their relationship has been foundering and his, to her mind, not well thought through decision to go to Las Vegas is the catalyst for her to break up. Daniel is disappointed, but it leaves him free to meet someone new – and he does, of course. He meets the beautiful Russian, Ania, at the poker table. This is Vegas after all!

As you would expect for the genre, things start to go awry. An agent double-crosses them, pilots start dying mysteriously in Vegas, and the drones are sent in to Peshawar to take out their target. Daniel becomes perturbed about the morality of what he sees and decides to leak some information. Meanwhile, his life with Ania becomes complicated when she tells him her brutal husband has come to Vegas looking for her. Daniel is torn between his work and his personal responsibilities, and starts crossing even more lines from which he may not be able to return. As we read on, we are not sure who to trust or believe. Is or isn’t Ania the traditional spy-tale Femme Fatale? And are the CIA starting to suspect him?

Daniel … in the lion’s den

Croome has, I suspect, chosen Daniel’s name for its allusive – and ironic – value: we can see where Daniel is, but he seems pretty oblivious. Fairly early in their relationship Ania questions Daniel about his work. She’s mystified by the fact that he says he’s fighting a war, even though he didn’t volunteer for it and wasn’t conscripted:

‘Then why are you here?’

‘It is simply that I have a job. I am doing my job.’

You are at war because of your job?’

‘Yes’.

She seemed to find this amusing. ‘But that is not romantic,’ she said. ‘How am I supposed to believe that you are my hero, if it is your job?’

She tries to understand this war in which he says that he won’t be killed. It’s not a war, she believes, if he is not in danger of being killed. Daniel sees it differently:

‘We drop bombs on people … They are trying to harm people and we blow them up. I don’t know what else you’d call it’.

At this point, the war is just like a job to Daniel.  He goes to work on the base, they track targets with the drones, and he goes back to his temporary home in Vegas and lives his life. When he is reminded by his CIA boss Gray that “like it or not, you happen to be at war” his reaction is disingenuous:

if people were dying or endangering one another, it had stuff-all to do with him. Gray could shove it. If the alertness of your encryption operator was your primary concern, you needed your priorities set straight.

He has a point – to an extent – and yet, as his ex-girlfriend had clearly understood, he had agreed to be part of it. Not long after this, they attack their target, completely demolishing a building in which people, including children, had been. It’s remote, cold, clinical … Daniel looks for the children hoping they’ve not been taken out too, but “where were they?” And yet, still, the penny hasn’t fully dropped. Ania, as Hannah had before her, wants Daniel to recognise what he is doing:

I am just saying think, Daniel … I am just saying there are choices – there are decisions to make.

I won’t labour this further; I’m sure you’ve got the main theme by now.

The midnight empire …

How do you critique a novel like this, one that is more plot driven than I’m used to? What should my review focus on? Plot, character, setting are, I’m guessing, the critical things – and I’d give them the thumbs up. The plot is plausible, the character of Daniel believable, and the setting chillingly realistic. The resolution – particularly in terms of who is implicated – is a little more ambiguous than Croome apparently intended but that’s probably the risk you take when you start to play with genre formula. I did find some of the technical details – the encryption technology, and the ins-and-outs of poker playing – somewhat uninteresting at times, but that’s more to do with me and my reading focus I think. Overall, it’s a carefully orchestrated and gripping read that should appeal to a wide readership.

‘Aren’t you interested, though?’ she said. ‘That people would be able to do this – exist somewhere beyond the rest of us, surfacing, emerging at night, a strange midnight empire, you would almost say traceless.’

Ania is talking about the people – and they are real – who live in the storm drains beneath the Strip – but what, we wonder, about the other, infinitely more worrying midnight empires? Croome has made very clear in this novel why we should be intersted in them…

Andrew Croome
Midnight empire
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2012
238pp
ISBN: 9781743311127

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2013 10:18 pm

    Yes, I wonder what he will do next, I thought Doc Z was a terrific book and though thrillers are not my usual fare either, one written by Croome is tempting…

    • May 2, 2013 10:33 pm

      He’s still pondering Lisa … So we’ll just have to wait!

      As for Midnight empire, it was out of the realm of most of my reading group but most really enjoyed it. And as you can tell from my post, it’s certainly relevant to the things that interest and concern us.

  2. May 2, 2013 11:58 pm

    This one isn’t available in N. America yet, but it’s on the list

    • May 3, 2013 7:51 am

      I somehow thought it might be Guy … On your list that is … If you get to the point where you have trouble sourcing it, and you want to read it, let me know …

      • May 5, 2013 5:08 am

        There’s always the Book Suppository if I get desperate but I have a feeling it’ll make it to kindle here.

        And yes that was deliberate

        • May 5, 2013 9:16 am

          I thought it might have been … And yes it’s the sort of book that will surely go electronic, Guy.

  3. residentjudge permalink
    May 3, 2013 12:11 pm

    How did you find having the author present during your book group discussion? Did he stay the whole time?

    • May 3, 2013 11:29 pm

      RJ, Andrew is the 5th author we’ve had and yes they do stay the whole time. I guess you’re wondering about the ability to be honest? About fear of hurting the author’s feelings? I think the author’s presence has some impact though several issues were raised with Andrew eg one member wanted more development of Daniel’s character, we discussed the ending, etc, and how our conception was a little different to his intention. Having the author there is such a treat … To find out their inspiration for their work, to talk about parts that we liked or ones that we didn’t quite understand, to find out about their life as an author, are all worth a lot to us. We’ve had Geoff Page, Marion Halligan, Irma Gold, Alan Gould … As well as, now, Croome.

      • residentjudge permalink
        May 5, 2013 11:28 am

        Our bookgroup is part of CAE so we never know which of the books on our list of 30+ is going to arrive each month. I think you select your program yourselves don’t you- do you consciously select local books where it might be possible to have the author there? I really enjoyed his Document Z, and I was aware that his new book was out.

        • May 5, 2013 1:23 pm

          Yes, we do select our own program. We did do CAE for a few years (we are 25 years old this year) but even then we only did CAE for 6 months and our own choice for the other. No we don’t consciously choose a book where it might be possible to have the author. We’ve had 2 of our 5 authors this year – this is probably because our Canberra centenary focus made it more likely that an author we chose might be around.

          This is more plot driven than Document Z with all its history … but an interesting read.

  4. May 3, 2013 2:17 pm

    I’ve read through the sample on his website, and from the perspective of someone who lives here the descriptions so far sound like a shopping list. Pokies at the airport? tick — long-hauling taxi drivers? tick — bright lights? tick — smut peddlers? tick — and the careful noting of proper names, Harmon Avenue, Planet Hollywood, and the Aria. The Australian equivalent would be an American landing in — say Canberra — having Customs confiscate his foodstuffs because the author has done his research and discovered that this is A Thing — noticing that people have accents that sound sort of British to him but not totally — noticing a person in the airport who seem to be important — overhearing someone say, “That’s the Minister of X” — revealing to the reader that this soul is a politician so we must be in a politician-place — exiting the building — and obediently spotting a gum tree and a road sign to Lake Burley Griffin.

    But I think that impression comes from the style too, which is a shopping-list thriller style, made to zip the reader through the world in a businesslike way — narrator sees thing, issues brief flavour-description — sees another thing, emits another flavour-description — sees Thing Three — describes — etc, etc — the prose would probably sound the same if the character took a walk through the author’s own back garden.

    (Incidentally, if, on page nine, he’s searching for some piece of clothing to buy his girlfriend (as he seems to be since he ends up with a sundress) then “He expected there wouldn’t be anything very tasteful to buy in Las Vegas but after an hour’s search he was surprised that he hadn’t been able to find anything that wasn’t gruesome” is either nonsense or the character isn’t looking very hard. The expensive end of the Strip, where he’s hanging out at this point in the story, is awash with high-end clothing stores, shoe stores, handbag stores, whatever-stores. He’s at Planet Hollywood? The Cosmopolitan is right across the road! CityCenter is directly there! They have Prada! Maybe he’s not a Prada fan but gruesome seems a bit harsh. Poor old Jimmy Choo store, its feelings are hurt. The bespoke tailor at the Cosmo is weeping gently as we speak.)

    • May 5, 2013 1:44 pm

      Ah DKS, sorry I’ve taken a while to reply … was on the road when your comment came in and I wanted to read it properly.

      As someone who has visited Las Vegas several times but never stayed more than a night (maybe two nights once), I found his description fair enough but it’s more the description of someone passing through … and that detail you read in Chapter 1 (second one after the prologue) is of his (Daniel’s) first day or two. Croome did spend some time in Vegas though I can’t recollect now whether he said how long. I don’t imagine Daniel could afford Prada or Jimmy Choo but “gruesome” may be a bit harsh as you say. I must say I never shopped in Vegas to know.

      I guess the question is whether his description of place plays too much to stereotype to work effectively in the novel. It felt OK to me. That said, your Canberra analogy is interesting. I wonder how I would feel about reading that … and whether I’d feel differently depending on whether the book were “general” fiction versus genre fiction (like crime/mystery/thriller). Of course, if they also described the place as lacking soul I’d really know then that they were writing to stereotype and not to knowledge (though others may not agree)!

      The style is fairly staccato – even longer sentences tend to read as a bunch of small bits, which is appropriate I think for the thriller genre (though I’m not an aficionado to really know!) as it keeps the story moving and the choppiness keeps you rather on edge.

      Thanks for your comment … I was hoping you would, given your location.

      • May 7, 2013 7:03 am

        I’m guessing the description does its job well enough but that “gruesome” sentence is the equivalent of “Canberra lacks soul.” Daniel starts off his search at Planet Hollywood, which opens directly into the Miracle Mile — which we know is part of this fictional Las Vegas because the author has already told us that the character sat there looking at the ceiling — and the Miracle Mile is a long corridor of mid-level shops, one of them Billabong, one of them that sells handmade alpaca rugs — not items guaranteed to dazzle but not gruesome unless your definition of gruesome is a lot more refined that his seems to be. It would genuinely be extremely difficult to look around that part of the city for “an hour” without coming across that sundress or some sundress-level substitute at least five or six times. He could have done it without even setting foot on the street. And everything Croome had given us up to then was true, there are plenty of taxi drivers who will skim the tourist for as much as they can get away with (they’ve been in the news again recently: “Audit finds local cab drivers overcharged passengers $14.8 million last year” was the headline in the Las Vegas Review-Journal), and some of the mountains really do have bands of colouring, but “gruesome” was a lurch into fantasyland-Vegas where every shop is stocked purely with Liberace fridge magnets. He’s thrown away research and observation for the sake of a cheap dig. So he wasn’t doing too badly till then, but the hackles went up at the Gruesome.

        Did he tell you the location of his fictional Nexus building? Mentally I’m positioning it somewhere around the Marie Antoinette on Harmon, and it would be nice to know how far off I am.

        • May 7, 2013 8:40 am

          I think that’s a fair comment DKS … I’m not sure if he has seen this post, but I’ll ask someone who does have some contact with him regarding the location. I don’t think we asked him because none of us know Las Vegas well enough.

          I thought the physical description of the landscape was pretty good … Having driven through there several times, and been to the Valley of Fire.

        • May 21, 2013 10:05 pm

          DKS, here is Andrew Croome’s reply on Nexus: “there is no ‘real’ Nexus Loft and no certain positioning, but in my mind it was on E Harmon or E Flamingo Road just before or after Koval Ln. I was inspired by some large ‘loft’ buildings I saw from the train north of the golf club, and sort of put an invented one a little lower. The geography of most of the other places in the book is accurate I believe – except for the shady motels, which I invented as well … However, how accurate the geography is doesn’t matter too much in terms of the book, I think – more the impression of it and what it means for the characters and the novel’s broader concerns.” Sounds like you were right re its location.

  5. May 4, 2013 4:44 am

    Sounds like a fun read. And how cool that the author visited your book group!

  6. May 9, 2013 6:38 am

    Not a biggie, re. Nexus, I’m curious that’s all. I’ll read the book if I ever come across it, just for the locations. (I skimmed through an entire urban fantasy novel once because the lead male took a geographically correct drive down part of Tropicana Avenue. Terrible, terrible, bad, awful book, but gee when it came to the drive between the the Mandalay Bay and Maryland Boulevard he really knew his stuff.) One description, somewhere, said that those “dying mysteriously” pilots were being murdered in “the Las Vegas suburbs,” and I thought: which suburbs?

    On the subject of shopping-list fast-moving thriller descriptions, I think Peter Temple handles that idea well — he’s turned it into a style so distinct that it would work as a style whether it was in a thriller or not. A way of making a languid vernacular language dynamic.

    Valley of Fire! The way the rocks are brown, brown, brown and then suddenly Martian-red as you drive up, this rocky tomato landscape, amazing. We know someone who lives in a townhouse development in the shadow of a mountain, in one of the outer suburban areas, an ordinary house straight out of the catalogue of America-wide suburban housing designs, but then you step outside and a monstrous coaly crag goes up and up like the judgement of God.

    • May 9, 2013 10:40 am

      (Maryland Parkway, coming from Las Vegas Boulevard. I conflated.)

  7. meg permalink
    May 18, 2013 9:43 am

    I have now read Midnight Empire. I think your review of the story is excellent. I too wasn’t interested in poker or encryption details. I prefer character driven novels, and there was’t any one in the story I was attracted to. Though I do think Ania was well drawn. I thought it was a cold book, and that might have been Croome’s intention. People have become insensitive to war and its impact on innocent people. However, Croome kept my interest because I wasn’t sure who was the informer. I didn’t like the book as much as Document Z.

    Meg

    • May 18, 2013 11:58 am

      Oh thanks Meg for coming back … I always enjoy your thoughts. I suspect that was part of his intention, that is, to encourage us to think about where does complicity/involvement in war begin and end. Like you I prefer character driven novels but there was enough character here to keep me interested in the plot. There were glimmers that Daniel was getting the point, that he realised how mired he had become to carry out some of the violence that he did. I think Croome showed that a bit in his aimlessness at the end …

      I found it an intriguing read overall – partly because of the subject matter (drones) and the setting – but like you enjoyed Document z more. I will be interested to see what he writes next.

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