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?’
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…
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2012