The U.S. president in Ron Terpening's latest thriller has a short attention span. At a meeting of the National Security Council, he stage-whispers through an expert's briefing, and then interrupts the director of the CIA.
"You know how you can tell when an official of the French government is lying?' he asks. "When he opens his mouth."
Is that also how you can tell an American president is an idiot?
That this fictional presidential joker serves in the same historical period as the real-life hero of our real-life Current Occupant suggests that Terpening might be sprinkling a bit of commentary on his story. The resonance of the title Nine Days in October to the title of a certain '60s political novel and Burt Lancaster/Kirk Douglas film (think "Seven" and "May") certainly suggests it's political.
Nine Days in October places widowed University of Arizona art professor Richard Donovan with his two daughters in Rome. It's 1988. Donovan is on sabbatical. Older daughter Claudia has just turned 16, and they're shopping for a birthday necklace when a gang pulling off an $8 million robbery explodes into the jewelry shop. The robbers mow down guards and a bystander, detonate a grenade and flee, grabbing a hostage for insurance. When they've gone, a saleswoman's been shot in the face; Donovan is unconscious on the floor; his younger daughter is dead in a corner; Claudia has been kidnapped.
Now that was the simple part. In addition to Donovan's search for his daughter, this novel involves international conspiracy and the mire of Soviet, U.S. and incomprehensible Italian politics--all of which coalesce on Day Nine, at a meeting of heads of state.
This is not Terpening's first fictional foray into the murk of international crime, but it's his most successful thus far. In previous works Tropic of Fear and League of Shadows, the UA professor of Italian proved himself an able creator of setting and conflict, and a conscientious researcher. In this latest novel, he demonstrates an increased ability with the craft itself--with detailed sensory mood, a handle on his multiple characters and well-paced and motivated action.
Historically, the autumn of 1988 is a rich field to mine, with the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian and British-Northern Ireland conflicts, Muslim terrorism, U.S.-Iranian tension and fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ronald Reagan is finishing his tenure, and Mikhail Gorbachev has initiated the changes in the Soviet Union that will help thaw the Cold War. Meanwhile, communism lives on, in separate and competing forms, in Italy.
Using shifting points of view, Terpening has concocted a fairly elaborate plot. Beppe Fiammetti's gang--the perpetrators of the robbery--claim to be engaged in revolutionary guerilla warfare. Beppe himself--a University of California at Berkeley-educated, student-riots vet--finds himself caught between his younger, more volatile gang members and the shadowy group giving orders from above. Tracking down Beppe, we have Renzo Feroni, director of the Italian antiterrorism and special-operations division. That Italy has not only military police--the Carabinieri--but also separate bodies of potentially competing civilian and military secret services further muddies his sphere of responsibility.
In Terpening's 2005 novel, League of Shadows, he explored the remnants of Mussolini's deadly and dangerous secret service, the OVRA. In Nine Days in October, he makes the point that Italy in the '80s was rife with competing terrorist groups of both the left and the right--including the OVRA--all further complicated by the CIA, the Mafia and various ethnic separatist and other underground groups.
Terpening narrates in a clean style that's not self-conscious, using a convincing store of detail. He's painted his primary male characters with nuance and sympathy (although he does sacrifice Donovan's wife and daughter distressingly easily; two lost dogs evoke more convincing emotion).
In the novel and film Seven Days in May, the conflict was between American hardliners and a U.S. president trying to effect international arms reduction. In Nine Days in October, one conflict is between Soviet hardliners and a Soviet president attempting to foster democracy. It wouldn't be a huge leap to deduce that one theme of this novel could relate to the problems of a simplistic us-vs.-them worldview, and the arrogant United States' heavy-handed wielding of power.
Funny. At this writing, Mikhail Gorbachev himself has just surfaced and commented on that himself.
Pointedly critical or not, Terpening's novel does come off a well-wrought high-action tale.