Jim Geraghty’s day job is keeping politicians honest at National Review.
The site’s senior political correspondent has his hands full with the current Beltway bunch. Geraghty still finds time to pen spy novels with a cheeky sense of humor in between all the fact checking.
His “Dangerous Clique” saga continues with “Gathering Five Storms: A Dangerous Clique Novel.” The story finds our heroes grappling with the fruits of their success – old enemies trying to stop them from saving the day … again.
The novel flashes back to the group’s first battles while showing Katrina and Alec prepare for the biggest adventure of all.
We spoke with Geraghty about the third book in the series, how he avoids partisanship in his prose and if our growing distrust of institutions will flavor his spy saga.
HiT: Your heroes have logged enough adventures to draw some … unwanted attention, we learn in the new book. What made you pursue that angle for Gathering Five Storms?
Geraghty: When I began the series with “Between Two Scorpions,” I wanted my characters to be well-established in their careers and relationships, to have a little seasoning and wear-and-tear on them – and the dynamic of the team having been friends for years was central to the concept.
I was pleasantly surprised how many readers wanted to hear about the team’s origin story, but I knew I didn’t want to write a straight prequel. (I find most prequels feel trapped by the sense that we, the readers or audience, know how things have to end.)
Three Martini Lunch: Gathering Five Storms: Previewing Jim’s New Novel https://t.co/E809H1qgfX
— Ricochet (@Ricochet) August 8, 2022
So, I explored the idea of a sequel where the team’s challenge is driven by the consequences of that first mission, and how both the reader and the team’s FBI liason, Elaine, need to hear the full story of that mission and the team’s formation to figure out who’s after them. (It was also a way to comment a bit on how American life has changed from 2003 to the early Biden years.)
It seemed like the right way to keep the story moving forward. I also like the idea of our actions having consequences we usually can’t see at the time.
When Chris Clairemont was writing the “X-Men” comics, fans (and one of the artists) used to complain that he never allowed the team to enjoy a “clean win.” I think that’s a pretty realistic depiction of life, that good can triumph over evil, but we rarely see the good guys completely vanquish the bad guys, with no cost or sacrifice.
The idea of the team’s first mission seeming like a success, but inadvertently planting the seeds of this major threat nearly two decades later, appealed to my sense that life is rarely as simple as we would like it to be.
HiT: The book brims with information that most readers will find new, if not frightening. The Grand Bazaar … onion-style levels of encryption, overlapping spy schemes and more. Can you share how your research impacts your storytelling, and the tension between what ‘could’ be true and what actually is at the moment?
Geraghty: You could argue that I sell books to support my book-buying habit, and the need to research various esoteric topics is a wonderful way to justify buying all kinds of books. I more or less expect these books to send readers Googling to see just how much of it is real, which is most of it. Almost everything I put in the books – locations, histories, technologies – is either real, or a slightly-altered version of what is in the real world.
The Dos Ojos cave network outside Tulum, the Jetsons-esque hotel on an island in South Korea, they’re all real places. One of the more unnerving aspects of writing this series is that if I can imagine it, there’s likely something in the real world that is at least in the ballpark of what that crazy idea is.
I knew the team would need a hacker, and that a lot of thrillers, and in particularly the ones that Hollywood turns into films, tend to portray hacking and cyber-security in spectacularly unrealistic, over-dramatized ways.
The sequence where Dee analyzes and explains the “Grand Bazaar” – a fictional E-Bay for national secrets that is based upon what eventually became the Dark Web – is part of my continuing effort to portray hacking in ways that are both accurate and entertaining.
The one real-world aspect that I alter or tweak are the villains; the crimes and brutality of ISIS or al-Qaeda or the Wagner Group are just too horrific to make the centerpiece of what is hopefully a fun and thrilling story.
I want a villain who you can feel good rooting against, so they tend to be mercenaries, megalomaniacs and offshoot splinter groups of those familiar real-world menaces. I think the best villains are like Belloq from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Hans Gruber from “Die Hard,” Catwoman from the Batman series– you hate what they’re doing, and they can be absolutely ruthless, but you kind of enjoy watching them work.
HiT: What part of that research has intrigued you, or just plain scared you, the most?
Geraghty: The “Five Storms” of the title are this rumor/theory in the criminal underworld, that a series of inter-connected crises are about to bring global chaos, and that it’s time to batten down the hatches, because the next decade or so is going to bring violent anarchy to all kinds of places around the world – a slow-motion apocalypse.
We’ve lived through a hell of a lot in the past few decades – 9/11, the Iraq War, the Great Recession, ISIS, school shootings, Covid-19, riots, supply chain problems, runaway inflation.
If you’re around my age, you grew up with Reagan in the White House, and many of us knew the world was a dangerous place, but felt reassured because there were good, competent people in charge of the U.S. government and allied governments who would do everything possible to steer the world away from disaster.
Now, I suspect a lot of people aren’t so sure about either the benevolence of those in charge, or their competence.
A portion of this novel was written as the Taliban was finalizing its reconquest of Afghanistan, and that was a vivid illustration of how things that at one point were considered really important to the United States can fall apart really quickly.
There’s this recurring anxiety of the protagonists, of wondering if their bosses and their bosses’ bosses are up to the challenge of what they’re facing.
A lot of those problems I mentioned above, particularly 9/11 and Covid-19, seemed to come out of nowhere and changed the world dramatically, almost overnight. And there’s the recurring pattern of our leaders not being straight with us — Obama told us that ISIS was the jayvee team, Trump told us the virus was going to disappear one day, and Biden assured us we wouldn’t see helicopters evacuating diplomats from Afghanistan and that inflation was transitory.
We’re constantly being told “don’t worry about it,” right before things get really bad.
I think the zeitgeist is wondering what’s coming next and wondering whether our sense of order and stability is an illusion – or that the post-Cold-War generation of American leaders have squandered our inheritance and left us dangerously unprepared for the new threats on the horizon.
HiT: You sub-titled your first book in the series, ‘A Dangerous Clique Novel.’ You clearly hoped to have a franchise all your own, and now you have just that. Has that journey been what you expected, creatively speaking?
Geraghty: Pretty much. I like the “Longmire” television series, but I really like Craig Johnson’s novels better, because the story moves at this relaxed pace that feels like you’re just hanging around with the characters. It allows the characters to breathe and banter and bicker, to reveal a bit more of themselves as characters, instead of racing from scene to scene to resolve the whodunnit.
In the course of the stories, about three years have gone by. Major characters in “Between Two Scorpions” have passed away. Katrina and Alec deal with starting a family. The characters have lived through the Covid-19 pandemic, with aging parents, changes in administrations, changes in the leadership of their agency.
One of the things I admire most about, say, “Stranger Things” is that I think it would be an entertaining show even if the characters weren’t dealing with monsters and lab experiments gone awry – that we would enjoy watching what’s going on in Hawkins even if it was just a regular Saturday night.
I’d like for readers to feel that way about my protagonists, that as much as they might enjoy the plot, they would enjoy watching the team on a “mundane” mission – which is sort of that my recent short story, “Saving the Devil,” was.
HiT: You’re a right-leaning journalist and op-ed writer. To read your books, though, is to find adventures without any overt (or even subtle) ideological bent. Can we assume that’s part of your mission statement? Why?
Geraghty: I guess subtle is in the eye of the beholder. There was a good review of “Between Two Scorpions” on Amazon that suggested my worldview is very clear from the narrative choices in the books: “Anyone familiar with his journalism will recognize the nods towards the primacy of family life: respect for law enforcement and first responders; support for the second amendment; the importance of hard work; the essential goodness of American traditions; and, ultimately, the existence of God.”
I’d like to think that someone who disagrees with me politically can still enjoy these stories, because ultimately, they’re supposed to be fun, a thrill ride with quick-witted, snarky, flawed but good people trying to make the world a better and safer place, in the face of some very unorthodox and menacing threats.
Both “Between Two Scorpions” and “Gathering Five Storms” deal with this theme asking of how divided America can get, and how much we can turn against each other, before we stop functioning as a country.
“By every measure, the operation was a success, but it marked the first time Katrina Leonidivna had ever vomited on her target.”#bookbeginnings: GATHERING FIVE STORMS by @jimgeraghty, the #newbook in Geraghty’s Dangerous Clique series.
— Gilion Dumas (@GilionDumas) September 16, 2022
I don’t want to give any spoilers, but let’s just say that the villainous plots in both of those stories involve exploiting and maximizing Americans’ current divisions and the instinct to suspect the worst of each other. And the seemingly worsening mistrust and division in the country contrasts with the members of the team, with their disparate viewpoints and ways of looking at life and the world, who manage to put aside their differences and unite in pursuit of a common goal.
HiT: We’re living in a world of 24/7 content, and every platform needs new stories to share. Have you been approached about bringing the Clique to screens large or small? If not, where do you think these heroes would fit in best?
Geraghty: No nibbles on the line yet, and while I certainly wasn’t counting on it, I’d certainly like to see that happen. I think each novel could translate well to an eight to ten-episode season of a streaming series.
I think we’re still culturally digesting the events surrounding the pandemic, and I think “Hunting Four Horsemen” had something unique to say about our fears of living in an effectively borderless world, where a virus emerging in some far-off corner of China can suddenly turn your life upside down and perhaps even kill you.
One of the traditional factors limiting the use of biological warfare was that it was too dangerous, because it could all-too-easily spread to your own population. But what happens if someone can engineer a virus that only targets certain genes?
Unfortunately, our world is still plagued – no pun intended – with people who hate other racial and ethnic groups, from the Balkans to the Chinese Uighur camps.
I’ve seen lots of “we’ve got to stop the bioweapon” thrillers, but off the top of my head, I don’t think I’ve seen a thriller willing to explore the horrifying potential of an “ethnic bioweapon.” Then again, maybe that sort of material is too realistic and scary to make for a fun series.
HiT: Can we assume a fourth adventure is on the way … anything you can tease about it, if so?
Geraghty: Yes. A good thriller writer always wants to leave his audience wanting more and “Gathering Five Storms” concludes with two chapters that something like the equivalent of the Marvel post-credit scenes, hinting at what’s coming in some future story.
First, the end of “Between Two Scorpions” dipped a toe into the spiritual or supernatural waters, with certain characters noting odd coincidences and starting to believe that something beyond this earth, akin to angels and demons, was influencing the actions of people.
That theme was largely put on the back burner of the science-focused “Hunting Four Horsemen,” but it returns vividly in the final act of “Gathering Five Storms.”
The next story will definitely provide answers, or at least a clear sense of what the characters believe is happening, although different characters may come to different conclusions about whether or not God and the Devil are attempting to play chess with their lives.
Second, since the earliest chapters of “Between Two Scorpions,” my protagonists have feared an unidentified mole within the CIA. In the final chapter of the latest book, the identity of the mole is revealed, and the mole will be a major antagonist in the next novel.
HiT: We’re living in a time of deep distrust of our institutions… do you think that will increasingly impact the saga moving forward?
Geraghty: That is a great question. There’s a little bit of an acknowledgment of that distrust in the concept; the team is nicknamed a “clique” because they minimize how much they work with the rest of the CIA, FBI, NSA, etc. That reluctance to work with the rest of the government is because they don’t trust, or have much faith, in the larger institutions.
The difference is that my protagonists think the U.S. national security agencies are slow-moving, bureaucratic, risk-averse, and increasingly afraid of telling elected leaders things they don’t want to hear, and I suspect the deep distrust of our institutions you’re referring to has more to do with Peter Strzok, RussiaGate, the ‘Deep State,’ and so on.
I don’t think you can look honestly at institutions like the CIA and FBI and not see some concerning flaws – at minimum groupthink, some very convenient leaking of information, and either increasing politicization, or blasé or cavalier attitude towards the public perception of these institutions becoming politicized.
Way back in 2018, I reported on retired FBI agents who said they were uncomfortable with former FBI director Jim Comey choosing to embrace his role as a #Resistance hero. I also wonder if lawmakers are really willing to hear what the intelligence community is trying to tell them, or whether they greet each intel briefing with a subtext of, “tell me why I’m right.”
The good news is, in every “Dangerous Clique” novel, there’s somebody out there, up to no good, whose agenda is beyond the pale, no matter where you stand on the American political spectrum. And at some point early in the story, the team will spot the threat.
Katrina and Alec and Ward and Dee and Raquel and Elaine have different political views, different backgrounds, different religions and beliefs, and different philosophies and outlooks on life. But they all will, with some bumps in the road – start hunting down the threat – and then it’s a race.