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John H Allen

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American Ambition
by John H Allen   

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Publisher: ISBN-10:  9781847538284 Type: 


Copyright:  October 2006

American Ambition

Ken Finlay is President Duncan Kingís blue eyed boy. He is popular, clever and moderately ambitious. Some smart work sees him promoted to Secretary of State then three journalists tell Finlay that a computer program predicts that he will soon become President as well. Finlayís ambitions are heightened by the prediction and his sudden good fortune. So are those of his scheming wife Grace, who sees herself as the power behind her husband. They hatch a plot to disgrace King while he is staying at their weekend retreat; it is Ken and Grace who return to Washington as President and First Lady. At first Finlayís Presidency is successful, but one by one his political allies desert his cause and turn against him. In order to survive he is drawn deeper into a web of intrigue and deceit.

Finlay stared out of the window as they drove out the main gate. The thoughts he had entertained earlier returned. That place where you could see the summit. Well the summit had just got much closer. Everything that was between him and the presidency had disappeared at one go. He had vaulted the first hurdle already. And he would become President; hadnít they said the program was one hundred per cent accurate?

There were ideals that Finlay had nursed since his youth, since his earliest years in politics. Beliefs which he had held onto through all the years when the Party had been out of power and he had struggled to climb the corporate tree, then set up his own lobbying consultancy. As Secretary of State, he would be so close to putting those beliefs into effect and yet not close enough. If only he could step over Duncan King as well! No, he had to put the thought from his mind. It was a chance set of circumstances that had brought him to the State Department. Chance circumstances could occur again and allow him to clear the final barriers.

They passed the exit for the Pentagon. Ordinarily Finlayís car would have taken this turning but it was no ordinary day. Finlay sat back in his seat to savor the rest of the journey. More media would be waiting at the State Department. As Secretary of State, he would always travel in motorcades and arrive to a fusillade of flashing cameras. They turned off the Interstate and sped along surface streets, passing through red lights without stopping while motorcycle cops controlled the traffic. This is it, thought Finlay, red means go from now on.†††
"I do not dream of what I will do for my country, I will do for my country what I dream."

Professional Reviews

Deborah Fisher, Tregolwyn Book Reviews
The novel begins with the name "Jake Pataski". Not an auspicious start, unless you are hoping for a stereotypical detective thriller. A few lines later, the heroís name changed to "Jack Pataski", and my optimism grew, only to be dashed when I realised it was a typo. (This was a pre-publication copy, and such errors are allowed, indeed obligatory.)
To drop the attempt at humour for a moment, there is nothing actually wrong with the opening page, or indeed with the rest of the book. Openings are tricky things, and this one draws the reader in as a good beginning should. It does, however, read like the start of most of the detective/thriller novels you might pick up on any bookstall, with nothing particular to make you feel that this is going to be a book whose plot you will remember after you have put it down. The danger is, of course, that you will put it down before you get to the nitty-gritty.
It also reads like a first novel, or at any rate the first in a potential series. There is really no need to spell out to the reader that the heroís wife has gone to Florida and he is following on. And Mr Pataski, unlike his name, does not, on first meeting, strike one as the kind of character who might inspire a single adventure, let alone a series.
"Too old for kids, too young for grandchildren, as he often thought. However, with one son in his early twenties and the other in his late teens, he could never be quite sure about the grandchildren business."
Do we really need to know this? Soon Jake has boarded his plane for Florida and is conversing about Verdiís operas with his neighbour. A good move. All private detectives/secret agents these days are supposed to be interested in music, from Harry Bosch with his jazz to Elvis Cole with his George Thorogood. Why not Jake Pataski and opera?
What Iím saying here is not that I donít like the book Ė actually I do Ė but pointing out possible explanations for why it hasnít been picked up by a major publisher (and Iím making a big assumption in thinking that John Hamilton Allen has tried them). Publishersí readers donít often look beyond the first few pages. They are looking for something different, and they donít want to wait all day for it. Yes, crime fiction is a major seller, but there is no shortage of it on the market. To find a following, authors need to offer a new approach, or at the very least a gimmick. Mr Allenís nice, smooth narrative style makes the readerís life easy, which is a plus, but he does not challenge our imaginations -- until the point when we realise that Jake Pataski is a red herring.
The real story is a complex and frightening one. Betrayed by his (female) Secretary of State, President King replaces her with a man whose loyalty is beyond doubt. So far, so predictable. While the Presidentís team are deciding what to do next, their aspirations are thrown into doubt by the predictions of a mysterious computer program. Have you guessed where weíre going yet? If I mentioned that the overthrown Secretary of State is surnamed "Calder", and President Kingís first name is Duncan, would that give you a clue? Iíll say no more except that Mr Allen clearly has thought about the need for a gimmick, and has saved himself a lot of effort to boot. Okay, so itís been done before, in many different settings, most recently by the BBC with a chef as the central character. It still works because itís a classic plot. The remaining question is, does American Ambition do it justice?
Yes and no, I think. Setting this classic plot in the context of present-day American power politics is a master-stroke. Iím not entirely sure that no one else thought of it first, but it works. Subtle distinctions are made between the conduct of power struggles in our modern technology-fuelled terrorism-threatened world and the way things worked in the middle ages, ensuring that the turn of events is more than merely plausible. Additional twists ensure that, even if we are familiar with the story, there are surprises in store. A sneaky little epilogue underlines the parallels with the real 21st century, and brings us back to where we started.
The narrative is effective and never dull, but neither does the author truly explore the dark recesses of a mind where ambition has wiped out all but that most primitive of emotions -- guilt. Grace Finlay visits a psychiatrist, but her musings cannot compare with the poetry of the original, and indeed this is not Mr Hallís purpose. In American Ambition, he is not attempting a work of genius, but an intricate and suspenseful mystery thriller. The question that occurs to me is, where does he go from here? I canít really see this approach working for A Midsummer Nightís Dream.

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