If you've read le Carre or Ludlum, you've met men like Harry Strand before. He's a suave, middle-aged fellow living in quiet peace, particularly content because his previous life brought peril at every turn. Even those closest to him have no idea he was a secret agent, one of the best and most honorable of them. He knows too much about too many powerful people, but his skills have allowed him to stay comfortably hidden.
Until the day the idyll comes to a shattering end. Then he's on the run again, summoning old allies, resurrecting old safety schemes, racing across continents. His nemesis is an evil genius with unlimited henchmen and unlimited money, while he's only one man.
Apart from a comely companion who knew nothing of his past but stays with him — not only because now she's a target too, but because she believes in him — after she learns he is all alone, with nothing but his wits.
That, finally, is where "The Color of Night," David Lindsey's new international thriller, diverges from the well-worn path — though not explicitly and not altogether successfully.
Too often, Harry Strand is witless.
Here's a guy who — with his wife, Romy, and another accomplice — figured out how to embezzle more than half a billion dollars from a money-laundering crime baron without his knowing it and lock it away in a thicket of trusts and dummy corporations. (He keeps some of the interest for himself and his team but, ever the saint, returns most of the money to charities in the regions where the baron, Wolf Shrade, rules.)
After a few years of quiet bliss, Romy — Shrade's sister, no less — dies in a car accident. We learn later that she's been rammed from behind and run off the road, but no one notices the bashed-in back end and it never occurs to Strand that perhaps Shrade, whom he knows to be a vicious, vindictive madman, might have been involved. Gee, Harry, how could a cool breeze like you not think of that? "That's incredible, I know. I just didn't," he tells an old henchwoman.
How he learns, and we learn, of this is one of the book's greatest defects. One day when he's in the garden of the Italian mansion belonging to his new girlfriend, Mara, he hears a noise inside. He returns to find the TV on and a tape in the VCR. First it shows Mara leading a gallery tour, then it cuts abruptly to a grainy, black-and-white recording of Romy's car being pursued, and then pushed. He's in a panic! Mara was involved in Romy's death? Mara's an agent? How could he not have seen the setup?
The thing is, this leap to conclusion is unconvincing, and so is what happens next. He summons an information peddler he used back in the day — just happens to live in Rome — and asks him to run a check on Mara. After a harrowing, sickening interlude, she comes up clean, and they can get back to falling into love. Later, when it turns out she is an agent, there's an explanation for how she passed the background check, but if Harry had been in the business for 20 years, he would have known that dodge.
First he's thoroughly convinced that she is running a game on him, then he's thoroughly relieved that she's not. Where's his radar, the skepticism that kept him alive through uncounted dicey encounters?
The notion of Mr. International Player finding out, upon being sucked back into the vortex, that he just doesn't have it anymore is appealing, a credible twist on the genre.
But that's not how Lindsey presents it. Harry's still as bright as the best, and his mistakes are tossed off without accumulating any weight. At the risk of giving away too much, it is fair to say that "The Color of Night" ends on the same familiar ground it started from.
That is not to say the ending is displeasing. Lindsey chooses not to drag it out, and doubt remains until the very last sentence. He's deft in other ways, too, such as when Harry envisions his revenge on Shrade: Lindsey alludes to a fox, chewing off its paw to escape a trap, and limping away on a bloody stump to freedom.
And when one avenging attempt is thwarted by a woman's entering their elevator car, her perfume is "a saccharine epitaph for the demise of another opportunity." Though ultimately it does provide the breathless race readers of this genre seek, that description could stand for the whole of Lindsey's story.