Cold Frame by P.T. Deutermann is a political thriller set in Washington D.C. where a secret NSA-sanctioned assassination squad goes rogue (available July 14, 2015).
A cold frame protects plants from adverse weather. Three years before a government official mysteriously dies at lunch, two men meet at Whitestone Hall, an estate in Great Falls, Virginia: Mister Strang, a government bureaucrat, and Hiram Walker, an immensely wealthy recluse who lives for his experiments that explore the extraordinary capabilities of weeds. Hiram Walker’s life’s work is to provide a “cold frame” of protection to the botanical work that absorbs him and his far-flung collaborators. Walker, “a full seven feet, three inches tall” suffers from Marfan syndrome: “… he moved in a hesitant, jerky fashion, which inevitably reminded people of Dr. Frankenstein’s outsized monster.” Strang leaves Walker’s estate with a poison called Sister Dark Surprise — a toxin that is emitted when a specific weed is attacked. Strang assures Walker that the government is only interested in researching the toxin’s scientific properties.
Cut to the scary and believable present day: the bureaucrat who dies at lunch, Francis X. McGavin, was principal deputy undersecretary for interagency coordination in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and his lunch date was the lovely Ellen Whiting. Strang’s colleague, Carl Mandeville, talks to junior associate Ellen Whiting about the committee they’re both on: DMX, whose mission is “to target foreign terrorists for elimination,” a phrase that softens the stark prime directive, which is to assassinate. Author P. T. Deutermann makes it clear that Mandeville has gone rogue: his sights are set on taking out American “colleagues” who disagree with his aims:
“Bingo,” [Mandeville] said. “Look: the people on this committee are the people who decide who goes on the Kill List. We’re the ones who send a name to the President. Surprise, surprise, one of the ‘nominees’ or his black-hearted heirs entertained thoughts of payback for that singular honor.”
Nothing comes out of Mandeville’s mouth that isn’t nasty. Realpolitik you might call it. Official Washington has a solution for troublesome cases — they are transferred to a dead-end operation in the Washington D.C. police department. Mandeville lets it be known that he’d like the McGavin death investigation to stop…move along, nothing to see here…
“What’s happening with the McGavin thing?” he asked.
“The case,” Strang said, “such as it is, is being handled by a foursome of exiles in something the Metro PD calls the Briar Patch.”
“Well, their mission within the MPD is to move any cases which might involve federal-anything out of the MPD. Such cases are known as tarbabies, hence the Briar Patch allusion.”
“You’re shitting me.”
D.C. Metro detective Av Smith and his colleagues land the case of the dead bureaucrat. Av Smith, at first glance, is a man who has set up a life with constraints and boundaries, at work and most definitely at home. His new tenant, an attractive woman who is looking for a running buddy, is surprised that Av is reluctant to show her the territory in their Georgetown neighborhood.
“So this is some kind of a cop thing?” she asked.
“All I know is that as long as I keep women at a professional arm’s length, everything in my life seems to go smoother. I think the term of art is ‘confirmed bachelor.’”
“As opposed to, say, misogynist?” she said, skeptically.
“No,” he said. “I don’t hate women. I simply value my freedom more than the so-called benefits of conventional boy-girl relationships.”
Av Smith shares a literary heritage with taciturn investigators like Robert Parker’s Spenser. Like Spenser, Av Smith’s weakness is his curiosity. Also in common with Spenser, he has a military background and a former Marine’s respect for heightened physical fitness.
The bullshit of academia had convinced him to go home to talk to his parents about not wasting any more of their money. . . His father, ever Mr. Practical, told him to go talk to the military recruiters down at the local shopping center.
Of the four, the Marine recruiter had promised him travel to exotic places, the best physical-fitness training on the planet, and the prospect of shooting people and blowing up their shit.
Inevitably, Av and the mysterious Ellen Whiting meet. She is competent, sharp, and very clear with her stealth orders. She tells Av to shut things down, but he presses her for an explanation. Who are these people who don’t want police investigators to do their job? Ellen tries to put her masters’ actions in a real-world context when she answers:
This new breed, the homegrown breed? We’re still circling that problem, and what we’re seeing is not comforting. Not to mention the bleeding open sore that we call our border with Mexico.”
“Okay,” he said. “Gotta ask: who’s ‘we’?”
She didn’t answer.
“R-i-i-ght,” he said. “And you’re telling me all this, why, again?”
“Basically, so that you’ll forget all about the past week. Go back to being a Weird Harold down in the Briar Patch. Do what the computer geeks call a system-restore to, oh, I don’t know, ten days ago?”
Even though we know from the outset that Carl Mandeville is the villain, there’s no reassurance that the good guys will prevail. With black ops, who even knows who’s responsible? As a relief from the philosophical permutations of the plot, the detectives in the Briar Patch know how to interrogate criminals like they’re working from the Chicago PD playbook. Hardened criminals blanch when they see Smith’s colleague Wong eating the scenery.
“Hey-hey-hey-hey-hey!” Gooey shouted. “Muh-fucah’s losing it here. Gimme me outa here.”
Wong stopped his growling, took in a long breath, let it out, and then brought one of the pieces of board up to his mouth like an ear of corn, opened his mouth wide to give Gooey a good look at all those teeth, and then took a huge, splintering bite. He started chewing it, staring at Gooey the whole time. The detective behind Av in the darkroom did lose it, covering his mouth as he bent double with laughter.
Gooey, however, was not amused. Gooey was scared shitless.
If you’re looking for a story that feels suspiciously plausible, if phrases like “Victim died from aconitine poisoning, based on preliminary analysis,” make you look at the weeds in your garden with dread, and if your funny bone is tickled by dark cop humor, Cold Frame is a book that will capture your interest. You’ll be thinking, like Detective Wong, “What’s that shit?” as you ponder how much of the plot is based on headlines that will never see the light of day.
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Janet Webb aka @janetnorcal has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.
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