Each year, I read a healthy number of political/espionage thrillers.
It is my favorite genre, and I’ve reviewed a number of thrillers since I started this blog in 2016.
Having consumed the genre for more than 30 years now (after my sophomore English teacher gave our class the assignment of reading and reviewing a Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum novel in the waning days of spring semester in 1989), I sometimes find the genre lacking in fresh surprises.
Chris Hauty’s debut thriller “Deep State” left me speechless as the pages dwindled away in the “Advance Reader’s Edition” supplied by Atria Books.
A stunning twist caused me to hop off the couch, run into the other room, and express my disbelief to my wife Bridget. She hasn’t read the novel yet, so I had to be all cryptic and vague about it.
“Deep State” follows the exploits of Hayley Chill. She’s a West Virginia native, oldest of six siblings, and serves in the military at Fort Hood.
As the novel begins, Chill is preparing for a bout in the boxing ring against Marcela Rivas — in a match to determine the welterweight champion of the Sixth Army.
It’s a gripping way for Hauty to start his novel — using a situation that builds character with minimal exposition. His descriptions of jabs and hooks makes the story feel immersive from the opening stanza.
In my research for this review, I learned that Hauty — a screenwriter by trade — penned screenplays for a trio of movies under the “Never Back Down” moniker, focusing on underground fight clubs. So he has familiarity with the territory.
The story then shifts ahead 15 months, and finds Hayley Chill starting work as an intern in the White House — older than her peers, and lacking the Ivy League pedigree.
There’s a compelling “fish out of water” tension Chill faces in these early scenes as she acclimates to White House politics. In a way, it kind of reminded me of the conflict/hazing Elle Woods faced when dealing with her Harvard Law School classmates in “Legally Blonde.”
Hayley uses her photographic memory (cultivated in grade school) and frank nature to earn the respect of White House Chief of Staff Peter Hall. President Richard Monroe also admires Chill’s demeanor — the intern's working class background epitomizes the Monroe voter.
“Deep State” kicks into gear when Peter Hall is found dead in his home on Kalorama Road. The events surrounding his mysterious death set into motion a conspiracy with tentacles reaching into various Washington, D.C. institutions.
It is up to our intrepid intern to connect the dots as she navigates the corridors of power in the nation’s capital.
You’ll see a number of “ripped from the headlines” themes throughout “Deep State” — the topical undercurrent will have you questioning the political culture we find ourselves in today.
I’m not going to go any further because I don’t want to spoil the novel for you.
Chill is an intriguing hero. The best way to draw a protagonist is through action — as opposed to an “info dump” in the story. We certainly have the opportunity to see her in action as the events of “Deep State” unfold.
She is a mix of Darby Shaw in John Grisham’s “The Pelican Brief” and Sydney Bristow in the television series “Alias.”
Speaking of “Alias,” this is the sort of role you could have seen Jennifer Garner (who grew up in West Virginia) playing during her younger days.
Those who have read my reviews in the past know how much I like the little details authors sprinkle into their novels.
Hauty has descriptions of grilled cheese sandwiches (from Navy Mess chef Leon Washington) that’ll make your mouth water.
There is also a recurring motif involving Chill gripping a stone in her palm that adds depth and dimension to the character.
One of the more unique aspects of “Deep State” — in terms of writing mechanics — is that the story is structured in the “third person, present tense” voice (and includes a fair amount of foreshadowing for secondary characters).
It’s not something I’ve typically seen in these sorts of novels (most thrillers I read stick with the “third person, past tense” voice). I have seen the present tense voice used in a number of YA novels I’ve read, and always think how challenging it would be to craft a story in that style.
(A cursory Google search suggests that “third person, present tense” is used in screenwriting, so it seems apropos for Hauty to employ it in “Deep State.”)
“Deep State” is a terrific entry in the thriller game — featuring a feisty new protagonist in Hayley Chill. With a hair-raising twist in the final pages, Hauty proves a capable craftsman who will have readers thirsting for more.
“Deep State” will be released by Emily Bestler Books/Atria Books on Jan. 7, 2020. Pre-order your copy here.
You can learn more about Chris Hauty and his novel “Deep State” at www.chrishauty.com.