Keith Raffel indicates in his Author’s Note that writing A FINE AND DANGEROUS SEASON was the most fun he has had in his writing career. Best known for his high-tech thrillers, Raffel takes a left turn here with a historical thriller, dealing with an episode in the early 1960s when --- for a few short and excruciating weeks --- the world hovered on the brink of disaster during what quickly became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
"A FINE AND DANGEROUS SEASON is impressive from beginning to end. Raffel paints a relatively fair and even-handed portrait of Kennedy, warts and all, which is refreshing, to say the least... Raffel’s attention to detail with respect to time, place and circumstance is an added bonus..."
I assume that Raffel was almost immediately forced to deal with a problem that would confront the author of any work of historical fiction. With the ending to such a book pre-determined, how does the writer keep the reader going to an end that is already known? What Raffel does here is to focus on the people involved, with a couple of very important fictitious characters thrown into the mix to keep things unsettled and just a tad unpredictable.
The primary protagonist is a reluctant hero named Nate Michaels, and Raffel wastes little time getting things rolling along. The story opens in October 1962 with Michaels, at his office at Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto, California, getting a call from Attorney General Robert Kennedy in Washington, D.C., advising that the President wants to see him. Michaels replies that he has no desire to see him, and we are off and running. He and John F. Kennedy were friends some two decades before. The manner in which they became friends and some of the occurrences resulting from that friendship are revealed, as is the incident that irrevocably splits the two. It is only dire necessity that compels Kennedy to seek Michaels out. This occurs when photos from a United States surveillance plane over Cuba show Russian missiles aimed at the heart of America. The U.S. immediately institutes a naval blockade of Cuba; the military wants to take the missiles out by air and naval strikes, and Russia threatens swift and sure retaliation.
The fate of the world rests in part in the hands of two men, once friends, who have not spoken in over 20 years and would be happy never to see each other again. Success, it would seem, is anything but guaranteed, particularly because there are those who would stop at nothing to ensure that war will indeed take place. To paraphrase a statement made during the height of the crisis, the world powers are eyeball to eyeball, waiting to see who, if anyone, will blink first. Will Kennedy and Michaels perform their respective roles in time?
A FINE AND DANGEROUS SEASON is impressive from beginning to end. Raffel paints a relatively fair and even-handed portrait of Kennedy, warts and all, which is refreshing, to say the least. He also creates an extremely plausible reason to bring the President and Michaels together reluctantly as the world hangs in the balance, while the personal tension between them is almost always a palpable presence in the room. The book relies on the tension created by the necessary teaming of the two former friends working together to carry a good deal of it without depending on explosions and karate (though those elements are here as well), but rather upon quiet tension as events overtake them and the world.
Thus A FINE AND DANGEROUS SEASON is an old-school thriller, more reminiscent of Ambler and Greene than modern-day warriors, which is as it should be, given the setting. Raffel’s attention to detail with respect to time, place and circumstance is an added bonus, particularly for those of us who remember those days a half-century ago with the clarity of memory that comes only with the successful dodging of a bullet or four. It is, however, Raffel’s ability to deftly switch topical gears that makes this a must-read.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on September 21, 2012