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Backfire by James L. Griffith

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backfireStories of government spying conspiracies used to be outlandish, until Edward Snowden and other scandals revealed what occurs far from the public’s eye. Backfire by James L. Griffith is one of these stories, a thrilling conspiracy by the NSA to spy not only on agencies of the US government, but foreign governments across the world. Any who come close to the truth, or those on the inside who threaten to expose it, are ruthlessly murdered by the shadowy agents of the NSA. John T. Parker, a highly experienced and skilled FBI agent slowly becoming out of place as an aging field agent in a world of technology focused intelligence gathering, is originally tasked with rooting out a mole selling secrets from the FBI. But as bodies began to pile up around him, it soon becomes clear to him that the last secret sold by the mole was something that assassins from both the NSA and the Chinese are willing to kill countless innocents for. And while the far reaching espionage technology of the NSA gives them a dangerous advantage, they may have underestimated the simple tenacity and brutal efficiency of an agent like John T. Parker.

Backfire’s protagonist John Parker is more of an action hero than a spy, often leaving him out of place in the intrigue and espionage that drives the plot. And yet Parker, a rugged military veteran and field agent who scorns the notion of desk jobs, provides the perfect contrast to the faceless, overreaching spying performed by the NSA and their unaccountable agents. Parker provides an excellent figure in heated action scenes, including multiple assassination attempts by spies both foreign and domestic, and an exciting helicopter chase. However, much of the spy intrigue is left to other characters, who often do not have enough time on the page to become interesting, if they survive at all. And because of all the set up necessary to explain the NSA’s conspiracy and how it gradually comes crashing down, Parker has little time at all on the pages for much of the novel’s beginning. Furthermore, much of the intrigue of the conspiracy is lost behind the dry exposition of the technical details that made the NSA’s vast spying network possible. The fast moving action of the novel’s latter half feels at odds with the slow burning spy plot of the beginning. And while the broad reach of the NSA and the Chinese attempt to use their spying technology provides an interesting concept, any exploration of the broader consequences of their actions are lost in exchange for the action of the climax and a simplistic resolution. Ultimately Parker’s rugged charm can only do so much to redeem the dry, if admittedly realistic, details of technological espionage.

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