I had no expectations upon picking up UA professor of Italian Ron Terpening's latest thriller Cloud Cover. Sure, I noticed it had been published by a local outfit called Cliff Edge. But I didn't let the author's lack of a New York editor (or publicist) bias me. At a time when novelists are producing, in my haughty critical opinion, increasingly anodyne works, I tend to find more gratifying fiction brought out by indie houses and digital imprints.
Cloud Cover doesn't set out to redefine the spy-fiction genre. The book trots out many of the pulp-espionage clichés from Clive Cussler's treasure chest, itself secondhanded from James Bond scribe Ian Sinclair. Indeed, Terpening's novel is, at least in terms of plot, reminiscent of those pharmacy-airport paperbacks pumped out in the '80s by the likes of Jack Higgins and Robert Ludlum. Adding to the retro-adventure vibe is the year in which Terpening sets his Cold War thriller: 1984.
Which isn't to say Cloud Cover is badly written or boring. Terpening has penned eight novels, six of them suspensers. He knows how to crank a narrative engine, all his causes leading to effects without any gaping inconsistencies or erratic character behavior. And Terpening at least goes to the trouble of introducing an unlikely protagonist. Michael Higgins (the last name is a tip of the hat) works as a glorified NATO case officer (he merely passes along messages to a station chief) and archivist, comfortably ensconced in an office at the American Institute Library in Trieste, Italy. Higgins peruses books on astrology and dreams of blueberry pancakes. But his routine is shattered when a beautiful blonde woman emerges from the stacks to warn him of his impending murder. She claims to be with Canadian intelligence.
Higgins rebuffs her warning because he knows his work to be nonessential. He asks her out to lunch, and it's her turn to rebuff. Afterward, Higgins generously gives his hat to a custodian finishing up a shift. The janitor is immediately gunned down in the rainy street outside. The platinum Canuck was dead to rights.
Then an agent in Higgins' network is killed, with Higgins framed as the assassin. NATO wants nothing to do with him, and so begins his effort to unravel the mystery of the hit, and of the Beaver's involvement—her name is Fae Avadek. She keeps pulling his ass from the fire. Why? She digs scrawny scholars! Also, once Fae figures out to whom Higgins' team was leaking intel, and why Higgins is being targeted, she can track the real killer. She suspects the culprit to be the man, a brutal KGB agent who infiltrated Canadian intelligence and slaughtered her beau years ago in Tehran.
As you can probably tell, when Terpening gets his storytelling hooks into you, the pleasure derives from following his protagonist as he navigates an imbroglio. Of course, the problem with imbroglio narratives is they often demand that the reader flip back to read previous pages in order to better grasp the triangulations. For me, there was greater reward in watching nerdy Higgins and lovely Fae fall in love. Armed with a modest expense account, she treats the book-worming hero to a nice dinner or three in Italy. Such scenes are nicely conveyed and always laced with encroaching danger and erotic anticipation.
They ate now in silence, commenting occasionally on the food, trading glances between moments of preoccupation. At the end of their meal, Fae asked the waiter about hotels in the city, exclaiming, "Ah, the Hotel Cavour sounds perfect." But once outside and on their way, she told Michael they'd have to find a place on their own.
"That was to protect us if we've been followed," she said. "Let's find a small pensione outside the center."
Terpening deftly renders a few doomed-to-die minor characters, too—like the drugged-out MP at the missile-training center in Arizona who facilitates an apocalyptic threat, and the KGB stating chief Belgrade who nearly unravels the looming conspiracy before Higgins and Fae can even hop into bed.
Alas, there are a few pulp-heavy moments, like this one, in which Higgins and Fae are reunited as the villain looks on:
Michael threw his arms around her and hugged as hard as he could. His eyes filled with tears. Demidov grinned in enjoyment of the spectacle.
"Michael," Fae whispered in his ear. "I love you."
Not the most literary of scenes. But a hair-raising climax makes it all worthwhile.
If you're a fan of solid thrillers, Cloud Cover will satisfy and serve to remind you why '80s-era espionage novels were so popular—and why they're widely read today. Terpening deserves a huge readership, proving he can match storytelling skills with the best of today's Clancy-brand purveyors.