The Agency by Australian author James Phelan is making a big splash here in the United States. Anyone who likes the action continuing at a harrowing pace will enjoy this story. There is also enough fun dialogue between the characters to put a smile on readers’ faces.
This prequel introduces Jed Walker, a former Lt. Colonel in the Air Force who has decided to join the CIA. Although it is the fifth book in the series, Americans will be able to read them in order since all the books are coming out for the first time this year. Set in 2005, after completing his rigorous training with the CIA’s Special Activities Division in Virginia, Walker’s assigned mission is to exchange code phrases with a male contact. But just as the meeting is to occur, a British intelligence agent, Steph Mensch warns him of a set-up. After neutralizing the threat, he and Steph join forces to find a secret weapon that the Russians are looking to buy for hundreds of millions of dollars from a Blackwater-like private security firm. They must go off mission, operating in New Orleans, instead of overseas. Besides all the bad guys to contend with they must also deal with the hurricane that is barreling down.
Elise Cooper: Why a prequel?
James Phelan: I wanted to challenge myself since this is the first prequel I have ever written. I think it is more of a suspense novel than a thriller. I hope to show how Jed is personally driven, wanting to hunt down the bad targets. This gave me the opportunity to explain why Jed decided to move from the military to the CIA.
EC: As an Australian did you have problems writing about the American intelligence agency?
JP: No. I think since we are good allies there are a lot of similarities. I have researched extensively and have talked to many former CIA officials. I asked them if certain scenes are plausible and realistic. Fortunately, being a writer has given me access to these people.
EC: Why are all the Jed Walker books being released this year?
JP: They were tied up for awhile with my previous publishers who had first right of refusal. They dragged their feet and held things up for a couple of years. Now we have the rights back. I am working on the sixth book currently.
EC: How would you describe Steph Mensch?
JP: She is actually introduced in this book and is not in the other four novels. But she will definitely be in another book. I think she is intelligent, funny, and very persuasive. I based her on an actress in the British series, Luther. She has red hair and this is how I picture Steph. The other person I based her on is Stella Rimington, the first female director of MI5, the British FBI who is also a thriller writer. She worked her way up as an officer. I used my friend Stella as a model for Steph’s career.
EC: You did not have Steph doing most of the physical fighting?
JP: I thought about that as well. I hope it highlighted how good she was at what she did. Stella told me, which I put in the Steph book quote, ‘We of the fairer sex are often better at listening and instilling confidence in intelligence sources by keeping calm and putting them at ease… It’s about persuasion, and it’s about sympathy, it’s about listening, it’s about giving an air of confidence, a calm confidence.’ In this story, Steph is able to basically recruit and manipulate Jed. Remember this is his first mission, so he is a bit green, while she is an experienced officer.
EC: How would you describe Jed?
JP: He is very moralistic. The most important thing to him is to complete the mission. His driving force is to uncover a truth even though it must remain hidden for the sake of national security. As with many in the military and intelligence his marriage is off again/on again. His relationship with his wife Eve takes second fiddle to the obsession of wanting to fight for his country.
EC: Did you base Jed on anyone?
JP: My best friend from high school, Brett Wood, went into the Australian Special Forces. Sadly, he was killed about ten years ago in Afghanistan. Although my other series character Lachlan Fox is based on him, I do reference Brett in this book. Jed was his friend and realized that sometimes the good die also. As a tribute to my friend I visit three or four times a year military bases in Australia and the US. When I met with these people I found out that the training is having them go into the community, avoid detection, get the tasks done, and blend in by wearing plain clothes. This happens as they are hunted by others, doing an undercover type of work. I usually have a notebook with me. I hear the jargon and then write it down. All of a sudden this falls on a page of my story.
EC: How would you compare both the Fox and the Walker series?
JP: The Lachlan Fox thrillers occur in the same world, and all the characters cross over into the Jed Walker stories. The big difference is in the scope of the writing: Fox books are more James Bond type globe-trotting thrillers, whereas the Walker books tend to be a closer narration and more US-centric per the Jack Reacher series.
EC: Did the hurricane play an important role in the plot?
JP: Yes, because the story does take place in New Orleans. This is a place I have been to a dozen times. I have family in the US where we have visited since 1980. I remember when we had a family trip in 1989 across the US. We were chased by Hurricane Hugo. I have vivid memories of how we drove in the car and couldn’t see out of the windshield, even with the wipers on at full whack. As we drove, we saw how the rivers swelled over.
EC: The banter between the characters was at times humorous?
JP: This is how I write. I really believe every mark must be hit. I don’t want only relentless action, but want to include some relationship stuff with humor. I want my characters to act like any other person. Having hung around those in law enforcement and the military I realize that the wise cracks usually come out during intense situations.
EC: What about your next books?
JP: I first want to say I plan on being at Bouchercon and look forward to it and to travel to St. Petersburg Florida. The book out in 2019 takes place about ten years from when this one took place. I am thinking of having Steph and Jed team up again if not this book, maybe the next one. It might be interesting to have them back together since the last of the five books already written, Dark Heart, has Jed back with his wife Eve, a family man living on a Texas ranch with a baby on the way.
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The Agency (Jed Walker #5)
New Orleans, pre Katrina. Walker is sent on a mission by Harold Richter, CIA field operations legend and trainer of agents provocateur. The task he sends Walker on is a one-way ticket – survive and succeed at all costs. Walker is an off-the-grid, solo, deniable asset.
But Walker soon finds out: he’s not alone. There’s a British Agent in place, a feisty MI6 operator named Steph Mensch, and she’s been tracking a super yacht of Russians from Miami to the Big Easy. They’re there to buy – and the asking price is huge. Soon, our spies learn that they must work together, and their missions become one and the same – and personal.
When Steph is taken hostage, the case opens up. No one is who they seem, and soon Walker must take steps that will betray The Agency in order to do what’s right by the nation. In a high-stakes game where the winner takes all, he mustsucceed. But at what cost?
Then Walker finds out: the Russians are there to buy something that was stolen from them during the Russian war in Afghanistan. Walker uses all the skills he can bring to bare as his mission heats up in more ways than one, and he knows: if he doesn’t succeed, it’s not only Steph and he that will be left behind – failure will result in the world suffering an epic act of terrorism.
As Katrina comes to town to forever change a city and a country, it’s clear to Walker that his life as a spy will play a pivotal part in shaping our world. From Langley to Louisiana, Washington to Moscow, The Agency moves like a hurricane through a treacherous landscape of double crosses, false identities, and enemies old and new.
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