I’ve always loved spy stories, from my first Mad Magazine Spy vs. Spy right on through Dad’s shelf of Cold War political thrillers, which we devoured and discussed. I’m sorry he’s not here to share Diana R. Chambers’s Stinger with me. He would have ranked it in his top ten favorites, right up there with Robert Ludlum, Len Deighton, Jack Higgins and Frederick Forsyth. And, like me, I think he would have loved the audio version.
Stinger is my idea of the classic spy thriller: a shadow world populated by people who aren’t what they appear to be with hidden identities, hidden agendas, and lies enough to obscure the trail for even the most dogged of investigative readers. The twists and turns of the tightly-woven plot, kept me sitting in my car listening long after I closed the garage door. At times I completely forgot I was listening to fiction as my heart raced up to one suspense-filled peak after another. The story could be true.
Several reviewers have dubbed Stinger a romantic spy thriller. There is a romantic element, but what drew me in was the political intrigue seemingly taken right from the historical record of the Soviet-Afghan War in the mid 1980s. Set in Central Asia at the border of Pakistan and the mountainous tribal nomad region of Afghanistan, the action opens with the disappearance of six U.S. Stinger missiles that have secretly found their way to Peshawar. The Stingers are in high demand. The Soviets want to keep them from the Afghan Mujahideen, Pakistani and Chinese dealers want to sell to the highest bidder, the Afghani freedom fighters desperately need advanced weaponry, and the U.S. must want something.
Rogue CIA officer Nick Daley is charged with keeping an eye on Robin, a San Francisco journalist, looking to make her career through her interview with her former lover, now an Afghan Mujahideen leader, but Nick’s reasons for wanting to find the mujahideen leader differ. A tragic love triangle forms and is played out against manipulation, swindle, drug deals, murder, betrayals, ambush, courage, loyalty, and the history and culture of this Muslim region. It’s a dangerous game in a mysterious world that comes together in a surprise climax and ending.
Stinger is more than a finely crafted political thriller; it helped me to understand Afghanistan’s recent history and the Taliban’s rise to power. I knew little about Afghanistan or the role both the Soviet Union and the US played there, and even less about its conflict with Pakistan. The depth of Chambers’s research impressed me. It’s obvious she knows her stuff. The story is concise yet rich—just the right amount of action and narrative, perfectly balanced with images that lead the mind in unexpected directions. Her language is straightforward yet often lyrical, and her ability to describe her setting is superb. I’ve come away from the book feeling as though I’d really visited Peshawar and traveled the Silk Road. I can smell the dust and cooking fires, tea, and the oily heat of the weapons. Her characters have depth and distinction. Even secondary characters are crafted to stand out individually. I came to like Nick Daley as he revealed himself and his motivations. I look forward to meeting him again.
Actor and voice-over artist Charles Kahlenberg is the reader of Stinger. His deep sonorous voice added depth, mystery, excitement and plenty of tension to the story. I listened to the book twice, first just for the reader’s voice and again to catch-all the details I’d missed. Listening to a well-interpreted book is like seeing a film even as you watch the road—I do most of my audiobook listening while I drive. Kahlenberg is a professional actor with credits going back to his first role in the Coal Miner’s Daughter. His gorgeous voice has been heard internationally on TV and radio in countless commercials and he’s appeared on TV and in films.
If you are interested in recent history and want to understand more about how Afghanistan got to where it is today, read Stinger. If you’re a lover of Casablanca-style love affairs, read Stinger. If Cold War-style spycraft is your thing, read Stinger. And if you just want to try something twisty, shocking, and fast-paced—try Stinger. Does it show that I loved this book? I’m giving Diana R. Chambers and Stinger five stars and I just downloaded The Company She Keeps, the next Nick Daley adventure. It hasn’t been recorded for audio so I’ll read it on my Kindle. I’m betting it’s another five-star read—I’ll let you know.