Kip Cassino’s OLDOGS rapidly unfolds a series of clandestine encounters: a CIA handler struggling to cover the agency’s needs; letters from retirees itching to serve their country again; and smugglers moving a dangerous package. An energy pipeline plot soon reveals laundered funds, political maneuvering, and stolen nukes. A volunteer force of older veterans undergoes training in a pilot program (the eponymous OLDOGS unit) and takes to the field just in time to start tracking the weapons through South America. In a few hurried days, the protagonists begin handling agents, reporting intelligence, coordinating with CIA brass, and ultimately moving in for direct action to foil the deadly plot – all undercover as a pair of married retirees, with the low-key Bond flavor of cocktails, expensive dinners, and swanky hotels.
OLDOGS feels simple at heart – it deeply appreciates the values of military service and understands the plight of veterans who can find themselves adrift once their service ends, especially as accidents or age leave them with fewer family and friends, and it wants the reader to appreciate the value of their experience and knowledge of the world. Once a reader accepts the conceit that retirement-age veterans can still run a few miles and use a gun when necessary, the rest of the pieces fall cleanly into place: a post-Cold War world, stolen nukes, a plot to destroy American imperial power. The details of geography, political relationships, and the tools of clandestine operations all feel real. The prose itself is relatively plain, but it avoids too many errors and stays admirably plot-focused as it jets across the globe. (Although there are few typos overall, the Spanish-language dialogue misses some accent marks and grammatical structures – a noticeable problem for a plot based largely in South America.)
While the plot is well-constructed, the narrative’s sense of time can be jarring. The early chapters pack in a wide cast, multiple locations, and plenty of geopolitical maneuvering which might have been easier to absorb drawn out more slowly, or with fewer conversations between two men in an office. The layout occasionally exacerbates the problem; scenes can shift without even white space between paragraphs. The smuggling of a nuclear device proceeds rapidly while the protagonists are still in their OLDOGS boot camp, leaving the reader wrong-footed and expectant. A rushed romance sub-plot adds little to the narrative and tends to disrespect the characters involved; in addition to being unprofessional and unearned, it feels like a trope-ridden example of a female character performing emotional labor for a male love interest.
OLDOGS also makes some unusual choices about its fictional geopolitical situation which may alienate modern readers. The value and experience of older military operators is a central theme, while the narrative takes tonal cues from Tom Clancy-style thrillers, but the result is a world (and plot) that feels somewhat dated. Several characters are former Soviet soldiers, often motivated by vengeance (an inherently backward-looking psychological device), who think of a nuclear attack as the most efficient means to that end – all very much late 20th-century concerns. (The underlying villainy of a global financier who wants to establish a unified world government is flimsy at best, and sometimes – intentionally or not – reads as dog-whistling for Soros-style conspiracy theories.) Nevertheless, the straightforward prose, internally-consistent plot, and convincing technical detail make OLDOGS worth following to its relatively-predictable conclusion.
Fast-paced, technically-informed, and solidly-written, OLDOGS is a good choice for readers looking for a Tom Clancy-style military thriller.
~Dan Accardi for IndieReader