Symphony of Substance and Suspense
A Review of Sinister Refuge by Rick E. George
On the topic of the writing craft, Margaret Atwood urges authors to follow one iron-clad rule with respect to readers: "Hold my attention." Rick E. George is a past master of holding the reader's attention and far exceeds his previous successes with his latest novel, Sinister Refuge.
His first two offerings, Vengeance Burns Hot and Cooper's Loot, are page-turners that confront the reader with contemporary issues via fast action, compelling plots, and spare, affective prose. In Vengeance, an enthralling tale of a father saving his son from the grip of a murderous militia tackles the question of domestic terrorism. In Cooper's, the author speculates on the motivations driving the infamous and successful hijacker D.B. Cooper, wrapped in fast-paced story of men's greed and a woman's struggle to make her mark on the world. In short, Rick E. George knows how to pack a lot of substance into heart-pounding suspense stories.
Sinister Refuge is the best example of his signature style to date. In it, his heroes take us into the underworld of international sex trafficking, and with breathtaking speed and daring, lead us back out of the darkness. Along the way they face their own demons, become strong partners, and serve justice.
A veteran of the long US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russel Boyd is now a rookie FBI agent in Seattle who finds himself assigned to a case that will take him exactly where he doesn't want to go - back to the Middle East. The suicide of a young Arab woman leads the FBI to a ring of criminals who are kidnapping girls from a Syrian refugee camp and smuggling them into the Washington metropolis as sex slaves. Nawar Abboud, herself a refugee from the same camp, is assigned to assist, first as an interpreter. Boyd soon finds her a strong and capable partner, as dedicated as he - or more so - to bringing down the trafficking ring. They travel to the Syrian camp to unravel the plot, posing as a married couple from an NGO. Facing down dangers from deadly desert weather and violent, desperate criminals, the duo uncovers the evil operation, but then learn that vivacious and innocent Lely Khayat is already in transit to America, along with three other girls from the camp. Back in the states, Boyd and Abboud must find and free Lely and the others before they disappear into the world of sexual enslavement.
In Sinister Refuge, Rick E. George takes us across the world and back, through dangers and the developing relationship between Boyd and Abboud, with his signature understated prose style and relentless chapter-by-chapter cliff hangers. He is sparing with clever phrasing, using it like a piquant spice that peppers his Hemingwayesque, spartan storytelling. And while the thrilling plot drives the narrative, he still gives us fully realized characters, letting us into their hearts and minds as easily as he describes their harrowing adventures.
One thing I like most about his characters is that they are regular people thrust into high-stake circumstances. The heroes of his novels are not the tired tropes - former-SEAL-CIA-double-naught-spy-superheroes - that populate so many thrillers. For me, following a flesh and blood man and woman through their chilling exploits and moments of quiet camaraderie is better than all the Bondian sturm und drang that could ever be portrayed in prose or cinema. And his antagonists are no less real, something I applaud as someone who believes we are all human, with all our graces and faults, even when we act in evil ways.
The author also does his homework when dealing with aspects of his story that might be foreign to an average reader like myself. Writing of militias or the legend of D.B Cooper, as he did in his first two novels, I can tell he researched deeply to ensure those aspects of the stories were authentic. Even more exotic cultural facets are deeply embedded in this work, like language, food, rituals and common courtesies, and George brings them all into the narrative with a natural ease that bespeaks thorough investigation. His acknowledgement page commends experts in Middle Eastern culture who assisted him. His diligence shows via authentic depictions of the camp in Syria, the people his protagonists encounter, and the challenges immigrants from that region face in America, a country that welcomes them with one hand and rejects them with the other.
Finally - special bonus - George subtitles Sinister Refuge "A Boyd and Abboud Mystery", meaning we are present at the start of a series centered on this unlikely, captivating couple. The sparks already flying in this first installment intimate the possibilities of friendship and more as the two strong personalities support each other through future adventures.
I can't wait to join them on their next assignment.
Craig Allen Heath