Lethal Agent (A Mitch Rapp Novel Book 18) by Kyle Mills
Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books | Release Date: September 24, 2019 | Pages: 384
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Since Kyle Mills took over writing about Mitch Rapp in The Survivor after Vince Flynn’s passing, I’ve spent the last few books praising his rescuing of the character and his attempts at making Rapp into a protagonist that’s as compelling as he is violently entertaining. The more time Flynn spent writing these books, the more Rapp descended into parody and caricature, devolving into a raging id that wanted to kill anybody who dared disagree with him because he was just oh so patriotic. For the most part, Mills did a fine job scaling both Rapp and Flynn’s excesses back over the last four novels, and while Rapp was never going to become a bursting ray of sunshine, he was at least becoming somewhat redeemed and humanized under the guiding hand of a new creative.
Unfortunately, Lethal Agent is an odd regression for Mitch Rapp and Mills leans hard into those characteristics that Flynn increasingly relied upon to make this action hero remarkably unsympathetic and, at times, downright loathsome. It’s a strange relapse that, at times, feels like a book Mills rescued from Flynn’s trash can and repurposed. Rapp exhibits behaviors that are completely at odds with the growth Mills had tried so hard to invest in this figure since he was handed the reins. The Mitch Rapp we get here is completely disgusted with American excess, wondering why he continues to fight for a country whose populace is fat, bloated, and barely able to make it up a flight of stairs to save their own pathetic lives, and whose politicians betray and backstab him on the regular. This is a Mitch Rapp who stands idly by and watches a young Yemeni girl sold into sexual slavery and, later, sits idly by as an American actress is beaten by her boyfriend. The first he justifies to himself as a problem that can not only blow his cover but is also a predictable bit of victimization, so not his problem. The second he justifies to himself because the woman is just another rich Hollywood elite (ie, not a “real American”), and he only cares about her potentially being murdered under his watch because its interrupting his steak dinner. This is a Mitch Rapp who condescends to his girlfriend while she’s trying to warn him about a potentially lethal pathogen that could kill him, wishing he could just bark orders at her instead, and whose country is so far gone from the nation he remembers through rose-colored glasses that he almost pines for its destruction in order to make people see that there are consequences to their actions. It’s almost hilarious, in a pathetic sort of way, to see Rapp talking about actions having consequences without even a single hint of self-awareness. This is a dude who has never faced any consequences for his absolutely insane actions, even when he’s blackmailing government officials or killing prisoners, so this train of thought from him is especially ludicrous. This is a Mitch Rapp who naively longs for the good old days when all of America’s enemies were external and could be eradicated with a gun, as if America’s various roles in geopolitics were ever so clean and simple. This is Mitch Rapp that isn’t just sexist, arrogant, selfish, bullheaded, and narcissistic, but apparently stupid, too.
ISIS caliphate Halabi, on the other hand, is an interesting counterpart to Rapp. As a villain, he posses a keener sense of self-awareness than Rapp could ever fathom and has a clearer understanding, and firmer grasp, on American history and contemporary politics. He sees an America rotting from the inside, an enemy easy to kill now that it is so politically divided by Senator Christine Barnett, the GOP’s leading presidential candidate and shoe-in for the White House. Barnett is a Republican in the Trump mold, a woman who is brash and arrogant, who attacks our nation’s defense and intelligence agencies, and is more than willing to sell out the country wholesale to Halabi in order to solidify her power. She sees no problem dragging the CIA and Rapp through the mud in the midst of a potential terrorist attack simply to wreak havoc for Democratic President Alexander, all so she can gain some leverage and spin the Alexander administration as weak and inept. One interesting thing about all these characters is that they all seem to hate America for various reasons, and in Rapp’s case it’s an unseemly anomaly. He’s painted here as a figure that’s given up on his country and holds its citizens in as much disdain, if not more, than Halabi. Then again, with so much of the populace rooting for Barnett, a character that’s essentially Trump in drag, it’s perhaps easy to see why Rapp feels so betrayed, but Mills could have certainly done a much better job portraying the pathos of the assassin. Instead, he relies too heavily on Flynn’s notion of machismo, which boils down to Rapp being the only manly-man with a clue, surrounded by inept dullards to beat on. This is, oddly, the same kind of logic Barnett brings to the table and is vilified for. It’s understood that we’re expected to celebrate it here in Rapp because he’s a big bad man, and hate it in Barnett because she’s a woman. And yet, if these three characters weren’t so opposed to each other for ideological reasons, they might find a lot of uncomfortably common ground here. Rather than making for a compelling case of good versus evil, an examination of flawed morality, and a study on the sad and sorry state of current American affairs, it instead feels hackneyed. And yes, I’m probably putting way too much thought into this particular book, but that can happen when you’ve seen this particular framework done so much better elsewhere so many times before.
There’s a lot about Lethal Agent that feels weak and inept, frankly, and the Rapp series as a whole has seen better days under both Flynn and Mills. Its plot about ISIS using a Mexican drug cartel to sneak jihadists infected with a deadly disease across the American border has been done better elsewhere, but here feels like little more than a hodgepodge of contemporary thriller elements messily strung together. If you’re interested in reading about the contemporary state of American political relations with Mexico, it’s done a hell of a lot better and with more thoughtfulness and nuance in Don Winslow’s The Border. If you want a story about a terrorist organization looking to attack America with a new plague it’s snuck across the Mexican border, read Michael Laurence’s The Extinction Agenda. Or, hell, read Tom Clancy’s doorstopper, Executive Orders. You’ll get a similar story that’s better executed, has more compelling theatrics, the Jack Ryan protagonist is all-America hero that’s actually decent at his core and worth rooting for, the military and government agents are presented as capable professionals rather than power tripping thugs. And if you’re interested in reading about an American politician seeking to undermine and ruin Rapp himself, well, there’s plenty of earlier Vince Flynn books in this series to read given how frequently this particular plot point has been mined, reused, recycled, and repurposed.
Eighteen books in, the Rapp series is once again showing its age. Although I could forgive Flynn his overly dramatic tendencies and the ultra-conservative cartoon hero Rapp was progressively becoming, it was growing into too much of a schtick and one that got old fast, at that. Rapp as a character is also most certainly showing his age, and styled so heavily in the Flynn mold here, comes across as an artifact of a bygone era. Mills injected some fresh blood and some actual attempts at characterization over the course of his brief tenure, but now seems content to fall back on Flynn’s old crutches. While there was a lot of fist-pumping bravado you could cheer for in books like Transfer of Power, back when 9/11 was still fresh on our minds, Rapp’s progressively insane displays just feel disgusting and woefully out of touch here.
One could easily argue that Rapp was never meant to be seen as a hero. Although he’s the series protagonist, over time he’s increasingly grown into more of an antihero in the Vic Mackey or Dexter mold, a bad guy capable of doing good things. Rapp is basically a psychopathic, stone cold serial killer who’s found gainful employment in a government that can utilize his skills for its own end. It was entertaining for a while, but it’s a formula that comes across as creaky and aged here. His sociopathic tendencies were once excused under the guise of patriotism, to the point that if he were a comic book character he might be dubbed Captain Jignoism. With the country torn apart by politics and eager to elect people like Barnett, a sociopath of a different sort, Rapp holds his entire country in a state of disgust and contempt, prompting Claudia to remind him, “The country you love is gone, Mitch.” It’s a sentiment and plot device that mirrors our current real-world political climate, but neither Rapp nor Mills can muster enough justification for defending a nation that’s fallen so low. We’re told time and time again here that America is divided, but there’s no degree of exploration beneath these surface claims nor any suggestions on how to bridge such a divide, which ultimately gives Lethal Agent little reason to be read. For a book that’s built so heavily off contemporary political issues, it’s sadly hollow, politically muddled, and, ultimately, meaningless.
And perhaps, finally, I’ve simply outgrown the character of Mitch Rapp. I used to find his antics entertaining in a comic book fantasy kind of way, much like The Punisher, but over the course of this book I found his ultra-fundamentalist ‘Murica mentality increasingly wearying and, with Mills taking the character back to where Flynn left him, stultifying. Rapp, a killer and lover of torture who, in the past, routinely stomped on civil rights and notions of Constitutional protections and legality in a lawless, pro-Patriot Act, post-9/11 landscape, can’t seem to square his existence in the current socio-political landscape of 2019. Set against a real-life American government administration hellbent on similarly stomping on civil rights, Constitutional protections, and legalities, I’m not sure I can either.