Over the years, a plethora of very fine novelists from Robert Ludlum to jack Higgins to Tom Clancy to Clive Kusler to Eric Van Lustabader to Gayle Lynds etc. etc. have made the spy thriller genre largely a paint-by-numbers playground. For the majority of these thrillers, readers know what to expect and what they expect is mostly action. Lots of action in series with recurring characters. Often these are interchangeable characters fighting terrorists with a variety of motives and modus operendi including exotic diseases and weapons, a hefty body count, and international consequences for whatever schemes the foes to humanity, liberty, democracy, or religious freedom have concocted. Quite often, the heroes are not only battling the evil-doers of the world but their own supposedly righteous superiors or other government agencies as well.
Still, the field is irresistibly magnetic for generation after generation of new writers, and Terrence McCauley is among the relative newcomers who know how to paint those numbers with exactly what thriller readers hope for. He’s done it twice before with the previous James Hicks novels, Sympathy for the Devil and A Murder of Crows. His main man, James Hicks, is now “Dean” of the clandestine intelligence organization known as The University. (Anyone think of Clancy’s “The Campus” here?) The University is so clandestine, the CIA didn’t know about it for decades and isn’t happy to learn about it now. So Hicks has to appease Charles “Carl” Demerest, head of Clandestine Services at the CIA. Hicks simultaneously keeps operational secrets from the agency while occasionally asking them for backup.
The only reason Demerest doesn’t declare war on the University is because they’re the prime weapon against The Vanguard, a shadowy and deadly organization comprised of weapons dealers, drug runners, and money launderers who want to up the stakes by instigating international wars. Before these schemes get off the ground, they hit with deadly efficiency the University’s home base, wipe out their field operatives, and engage in open warfare in New York, Washing D.C., Berlin, and China. Hicks is in their gun-sights as well.
A Conspiracy of Ravens is solid action that is the proverbial page-turner. It demonstrates a thorough knowledge of the uses of surveillance technology that is completely believable as the behemoths of international espionage clash all over the globe with an ever-growing body count. As usual, the story is so fast-moving, what is lost is much character depth. We get many insights into the likes and loves of James Hicks and some of his surviving team members, especially Roger, a more than versatile club owner. On the other hand, we keep hearing Hicks is in love with Mossad sniper Tali Sadden, but we see so little of her, she is the most shadowy, one-dimensional character in the book.
A Conspiracy of Ravens should please any fan of this genre, and fortunately it’s very enjoyable as a stand-alone story. I must admit McCauley was able to impress me in some passages, surprise me in others, especially in the final acts. It’s clear this isn’t the final saga in the series as we’re witnessing an ongoing war between the University and The Vanguard. Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E., move over. You just don’t cut it anymore.
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on Jan. 22, 2018: