Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Tangent Objective by Lawrence Sanders

When I started working as a bookseller in 1994 it was toward the end of Lawrence Sanders' life but at the peak of his popularity.  His Archy McNally series, the first title of which, McNally's Secret was published in 1991, was so popular that after his death in 1998 his estate published another six McNally titles, finished or written entirely by Vincent Lardo.  Between the four McNally books and Sanders' dozen or so other titles, he commanded a full two shelves in the Mystery section.

I knew nothing then about the work of Lawrence Sanders and I cared nothing about the work of Lawrence Sanders.

In the course of my slightly obsessive library sale hopping of the last few months I have been looking out for older writers of mysteries and crime fiction (particularly since the mass market paperback editions of so many of them are available for half a buck or less).  I've gotten several Ross Macdonalds, a few M.M. Kayes, a Ngaio Marsh, some William F. Buckleys, a couple of Graham Greenes, and I finally picked up one by the very prolific Mr. Sanders: The Tangent Objective.  It sat with the others in a precariously growing stack beside my bed until last week, when I took a weekend's trip up to Northern California and dug it (and three others) out to take with me.

As is so often the case in a situation like this, mere pages into The Tangent Objective I was giving myself a mental smack for waiting so long.  A gripping, sophisticated, and extremely violent tale of blood oil in the early seventies, most of the action of The Tangent Objective takes place in Asante, a small African nation run by a bloated and corrupt monarchy.  Peter Tangent is an oil executive in charge of setting up a deal for the rich oil fields that are speculated to reside offshore; after a less than satisfactory negotiating session with the obese and grasping King Prempeh the Fourth, Tangent is pointed toward Captain Obiri Anokye.  The "Little Captain," as Anokye is known by the people, works for the government but is involved in the plotting of what will almost surely be a successful coup d'etat. 


Tangent asks his company to help fund and arm the Little Captain's revolt (after determining that the U.S. government doesn't care one way or another who runs the country).  But what starts as a purely mercenary operation on Peter Tangent's part is transformed when he realizes that Obiri Anokye is intelligent and idealistic, and will be replacing a corrupt government with one that doesn't actually spend taxpayers' money on gold-plated Land Rovers.  


Sanders' portrayal of the transformation of Peter Tangent is masterly, as he slowly begins to realize that, not only does he care what happens, he believes in the cause.  And the rest of the novel's rather large cast of characters is pretty nicely fleshed out as well, from the mealy-mouthed Alistair Greeley, chief teller of the Asante National Bank and military strategy enthusiast to Sam Lieberman, Jewish-American ex-pat, arms dealer and mercenary, who obtains the weapons for the Little Captain's coup and then goes along for the ride.


The Tangent Objective is long but tightly plotted.  The action is thrilling and the characters fascinating.  A terrific read, and one which is as timely today as it was when it was published more than thirty years ago.


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