Delicious descriptions from Down under: Andrew Croome on Nevada

I recently reviewed Andrew Croome’s Midnight empire which is mostly set in and around Las Vegas, an area I have travelled through several times. Here is Croome’s description of his protagonist Daniel being introduced to the region:

English: Basin and range desert in Nevada

Mojave Desert, Nevada (Photo credit: amateria1121, CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia)

Mythic horizons. They drove into the liquid road-shimmer of the desert, past the Joshua trees and the creosote bushes that bordered the I95.

It was midday, the sun unforgiving. They drove at seventy miles an hour but it seemed slower, the effects of the desert; their perceptions of depth made strange, as if light itself had shortened. It was terrain that felt planetary, the dry sink of an enormous Martian basin, a forever geology of heat and shale.

There is something otherworldly about deserts – any deserts – and the landscape around Las Vegas is typical desert in that sense. It’s vast, multi-hued, vegetated by unusual plants, and both forbidding and mesmerising in that way that is unique to deserts.

Deserts are popular places for secret military activity. Think atomic testing at White Sands in New Mexico and Maralinga in Australia. So too, Creech Airforce Base in Nevada, which is the setting for Midnight empire and which has a long military history from its early involvement in nuclear testing and to drone warfare today.

Croome’s description of the landscape Daniel drives through is evocative, although I do get a bit tripped up on the “terrain that felt planetary”. Isn’t the earth a planet? What exactly does “planetary” mean? I’m probably being a bit picky, though, because, overall the two paragraphs do herald the rather surreal world – physical and mental – that Daniel becomes embroiled in. And anyhow, I couldn’t resist sharing with you his reference to Joshua Trees (pictured in the photo above) because they are worth sharing …

Andrew Croome, Midnight empire (Review)

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

Andrew Croome, Document Z

Truth, according to the dictionary, can mean several things including:

  • the state of being the case, fact or actuality; and
  • a transcendent or spiritual reality.
Document Z bookcover

Document Z cover image (Courtesy: Allen & Unwin)

Truth in all its variety and slipperiness is, I think, the fundamental theme of Andrew Croome’s Document Z which won the 2008 The Australian/Vogel Literary Award. This book, which chronicles the famous-in-Australia Petrov Affair about the defection of Vladimir (familiarly, Volodya) and Evdokia Petrov in 1954, began as a PhD Creative Writing thesis. Who needs a PhD in Creative Writing, though, when you have a publication offer instead?

At the end of the novel is a reference to an oral history that was conducted with Evdokia by the National Library:

This historian’s questions give her the space to betray Volodya, to admit his faults, to commit herself finally, to the truth. She doesn’t. The record is no all-important thing, and what exactly would be the point?

What indeed? After all, duplicity is what the book is about. Vladimir and Evdokia are MVD agents at the Soviet Embassy. This is their secret role, in addition to their formal embassy roles, and it puts them in conflict with the ambassador since, in effect, they work for two masters, the ambassador and the MVD headquarters in Moscow. Not an easy position to be in, particularly in a regime that thrived on suspicion.

Croome nicely structures the book, commencing with the dramatic attempt on 19 April 1954 by the Soviet authorities to return Evdokia to Russia. The book’s narrative form is multiple third person subjective, and this opening scene is viewed through Evdokia’s eyes: “Evdokia knew this crowd was for her. They were hunting her…”. She was wrong though. The crowd was with her and were “hunting” those who seemed to be taking her away. This opening chapter ends with the words, “Everything he had betrayed”. The scene is set to tell their story, and the book flips back to 1951 and their arrival in Canberra. From this point on the story is told through several eyes, particularly Evdokia’s, Vladimir/Volodya’s (who, Moscow thought, “could be well and truly trusted [my stress]”) and Dr Bialoguski’s (the man who worked for ASIO and who, through cultivating Petrov’s friendship, engineered the defection).

I enjoyed the book – partly because it was set in familiar territory, which is a bit of a rarity for we Canberrans, and partly because I was interested in the Petrov Affair. Croome seems, to the best of my knowledge, to have captured the era well. I loved the description of the Soviet Embassy wives going shopping…and he nicely evokes the polarisation of views between East and West/Communism and Capitalism that characterised the Cold War period. However, the book was a little unsatisfying too. I think it’s because Croome focusses a little too much on plot machinations for me – and yet the plot is not dramatic enough to support this. He does try to get “into” the characters but, for all his sound characterisation of the Petrovs, they are, at the end, pretty much as shadowy in terms of their “true” natures/desires/motivations as they were at the beginning. In the end, there’s not much drama in either the political or the personal story. It feels, almost, as though they were victims of circumstance – and perhaps they largely were.

And what were these circumstances? Well, they were largely the duplicitous – and fear-ridden – situation they lived and worked in. I had to laugh, early in the book, at the description of the embassy’s secret (MVD) section: “Somewhere, the roof leaked“. The book has many little ironies and paradoxes mostly playing on notions of secrets, lies, deception and betrayals, playing, that is, on a world in which truth is treated with rather careless abandon. By the end of the book we are, I think, no nearer the truth. We perhaps know some of the “facts” (albeit this is fiction!), but we do not “really” know the “spiritual reality” of these two people whose marriage seemed weak and who apparently lived a pretty sad life in exile.

I’d certainly recommend the book … it’s well written, and is a genuinely interesting portrayal of the case. But if you are looking for insights into the affair, I’m not sure you’ll find them here.

Andrew Croome
Document Z
Crow’s Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2008
350pp.
ISBN: 9781741757439