Court Gentry sounds like an aristocratic name, but he is resolutely a man of the people. The hero of Mission Critical, Mark Greaney’s eighth Gray Man thriller, Gentry pursues bad guys all over the world in a bare-knuckled, uniquely American style. Let James Bond have his martini shakers and tailored evening wear; Gentry feels more comfortable in a worn-out t-shirt, drinking cold beer from a can that doubles as an ice pack for his black eye. Good with firearms and not shy about using them, he has a soft spot for an attractive woman, especially when she is a double agent who has blown her cover and needs a covert partner who is not afraid to break the rules.
In Mission Critical, Court Gentry starts firing weapons from the opening scene. He happens to be on a CIA transport plane in England when gunmen kidnap an informant who has exclusive information about a mole in the agency. Gentry survives the shoot-out and tracks down the attackers, quickly uncovering a plot that involves British organized crime, Russian military intelligence, and an upcoming “Five Eyes” conference in Scotland, an annual love-in of spies from every English-speaking nation.
On the same night, Zoya Zakharova, a former Russian agent being groomed by the CIA, escapes from a safe house in Virginia when it is attacked by a group of Mexican sicarios. They are merely mercenaries, Greaney soon reveals, hired by a wealthy “mastermind” who believes Zoya possesses information that could reveal the mole and foil a scheme for wreaking widespread mayhem on Western democracies. But Zoya is one step ahead of the assault team, and quickly the hunted becomes the hunter.
After the frenzied pace of the opening scenes—a cinematic continuum of shoot-outs, car crashes, explosions, and more shoot-outs—Greaney, a Memphis resident, slows the action to color the characters’ motives. All the classical passions find a place: greed, power, love. For the bad guys, loyalty to the motherland trumps everything else, with amassing fortunes a distant second; neither family nor romance bears on their decision making. Gentry may have a cold heart when it comes to killing, but it melts when a lover from his past makes a sudden re-appearance. Are we surprised that Gentry’s soulmate happens to be a world-class murder machine? The heart wants what it wants.
Fans of Greaney, who co-wrote Tom Clancy’s last three novels, expect Gentry to use top-flight gear. For his mission in London, a junior agent delivers a trunk-load of serious ordnance, featuring “a short-barreled HK rifle with a variable-power Nightforce scope, a suppressor, a laser designator, and a flashlight. The weapon was already loaded with a polymer magazine,” the young man informs Gentry. “Electronic surveillance kit, high-end binos, night viz shit, more ammo for your rifle, a Glock 19 with night sights and a high-lumen light, extra mags. A Glock 43 in an ankle holster, and a Benchmade Infidel stiletto.” Locked and loaded.
Over the Gray Man series, Gentry’s relationship with the CIA has evolved from open hostility to a guarded partnership. By the time Mission Critical opens, he has settled disputes with American intelligence and now takes his assignments from CIA executive Suzanne Brewer. Gentry retains a high degree of independence, but he still pines for his lone-wolf days, free to cherish “the simplicity of working alone, an assassin for hire, only taking contracts that he believed served the greater good.”
The most American aspect of Mission Critical is its reanimation of the myth of the outlaw hero, the avenging angel who does the dirty jobs with guts and grit and nerve. The CIA, wracked with in-fighting, struggles to carry out its duties while Court Gentry is “the mythical Gray Man, an invisible, uber assassin, capable of anything.” He may rub agency higher-ups the wrong way, but he is their only hope to stave off a disastrous attack.
This entertaining thriller raises a profound question about the deployment of American intelligence assets. By focusing on the Middle East, has the U.S. become blind to the threats posed by Russia? According to one of Greaney’s Russian heavies, the East-West conflict continues even if the U.S. doesn’t acknowledge it. “There is no endgame in the Cold War,” the Russian announces. “It is a permanent conflict of ideas, of soldiers, of spies.” And if the dormant bear of Russia rises again, does the U.S. have enough heroes like Court Gentry to put it back to sleep?
Sean Kinch grew up in Austin and attended Stanford. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Texas. He now teaches in Nashville.