Dragon Fire

Title fatigue Washington triller

By Mark Schreiber

A version of this review appeared as
"Take a wild ride on the Orient Express" in
The Japan Times, The Asian Bookshelf, 17 September 2006


William S. Cohen
Dragon Fire
New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2006
383 pages, hardcover

With a name like "Dragon Fire," it's got to be a potboiler involving China, right?

Fortunately, this cliffhanger by William S. Cohen, who was U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1997 to 2001, turned out to be more original than its cliched title.

Viet-vet senator

The protagonist is the U.S. defense secretary -- not Donald Rumsfeld but Michael Patrick Santini, a former senator who spent several years as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton and who accepted the Cabinet appointment after his predecessor died mysteriously of anthrax.

Threats from Middle Eastern terrorists barely figure in this work. Instead, poor America is in danger of being blindsided by a host of other foreign intrigues, beginning with a militant faction in China that is plotting to hamstring the civilian party leadership so it can pounce on Taiwan.

First, however, it needs to keep the U.S. Navy out of the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese conspirators outsource their skulduggery to someone with money and influence: a billionaire Russian oligarch who hopes to forge an alliance with Germany, and who will sell drugs, high-tech weaponry or assassination services to all comers, if the price is right. To add to the intrigue, Elena, a beautiful and mysterious Israeli assassin, sashays into the picture.

Own worst enemies

Aside from having a John McCain clone as his main protagonist, Cohen does not succumb to the temptation of caricaturing specific individuals in the Bush administration. But that does not mean he doesn't have a serious message, which seems to be that Americans seem bent on being their own worst enemies. The heroic Santini, unable to dissuade the president from the aggressive strategies pushed by saber-rattling conservatives, is driven out of desperation to disobey his boss's orders and put his country first.

Though its climax -- a Dodge City shootout at Tiananmen Square -- seems a bit contrived, the web of thrills is spun as only a Washington insider like Cohen could have done.

Chinese names

I was pleased to see Chinese names in the story rendered more or less correctly using hanyu pinyin spellings -- usually a bete noir for American proofreaders -- although a "Hsu" (using the old Wade-Giles romanization) was allowed to slip in. It should have been "Xu." But as I like to say, if the Hsu fits, wear it.