Book review: Can Judd Ryker save Malian democracy?

There are not a great many novels set in Mali. The country has had its own small literary scene since the 1950s, featuring writers like Amadou Hampâté Bâ, Massa Makan Diabaté, Moussa Konaté, and Yambo Ouologuem. Maryse Condé’s Segu (1987) and its sequel The Children of Segu (1989) offer worthwhile historical fiction dealing with Mali’s precolonial conflicts and kingdoms. But Mali appears quite seldom in English-language fiction. Clive Cussler’s Sahara (1992) is one exception to avoid; John Updike’s The Coup (1978) is set in a fictional country that looks a lot like Mali. Otherwise, Mali maintains a low profile, especially for American readers.

Moss_THE-GOLDEN-HOUR-678x1024Which is why The Golden Hour, a novel of political suspense published this month by Putnam, is at least somewhat remarkable. It is the first work of fiction by Todd Moss, though he has published a number of non-fiction books on economic development and stock markets in Africa. At his day job, Moss is Chief Operating Officer for the Center for Global Development, a Washington, DC think tank. (Full disclosure: I knew the author back in the 1990s, when we were both worker bees in Washington’s Africa policy non-profit circles.) His novel comes highly recommended: the dust jacket features enthusiastic endorsements not only by thriller writers like John Sandford and Douglas Preston, but by pundits like Francis Fukuyama and James Fallows. In the latter’s judgment, Moss does in this book for diplomacy what Tom Clancy did for the military.

The Golden Hour is the story of Judd Ryker, a social scientist plucked from Amherst College to lead the U.S. State Department’s new Crisis Reaction Unit. (If you’re wondering why the author christened his protagonist “Judd Ryker,” I suspect it’s because “Ted Striker” was already taken. Like Striker, Ryker’s efforts to save the day are haunted by his past, but at least Ryker doesn’t have a drinking problem.) Ryker is an unlikely action hero: he never fires a gun, though he does carry one briefly, and the primary threats he faces are bureaucratic rather than kinetic. He’s tasked with reversing a coup in Mali, one oddly similar to the putsch of March 2012 — even though Moss had already finished the book by then. Among the parallels: the fictional junta is named the “Council for the Restoration of Democracy,” while the real one was called “the National Committee for Recovering Democracy and Restoring the State”; the leader of each compares himself to Charles de Gaulle.

As a Mali specialist, I could easily fault the inaccuracies and shortcuts surrounding the novel’s Malian setting. Reading the opening sequence, in which a Peace Corps Volunteer is kidnapped after a day teaching school north of Timbuktu, I couldn’t help thinking “Hey, the Peace Corps hasn’t had classroom teachers in Mali, or any volunteers north of Timbuktu, for decades.” At the mention of a “Bienvenue à Mali” sign at the Bamako Senou airport, my inner critic screamed “Oh no he didn’t!” And overall, I encountered few passages especially evocative of Mali or its people — very little to make me say “Aha, that’s the Mali I know and love.”

Todd Moss with President Amadou Toumani Touré in Mali

Todd Moss with President Amadou Toumani Touré in Mali, 2007 (photo from the CGD blog)

Such objections would be beside the point, however. Moss has been to Mali, but he’s no country specialist, and his novel’s setting isn’t ultimately that important: the real object of his insight in these pages is less the Sahel than the State Department, and specifically the culture of institutional in-fighting that shapes the implementation of U.S. foreign policy. Starting his job at State, Ryker is “shocked at the particularly virulent, dog-eat-dog subculture of the United States Foreign Service,” Moss writes, remarking on the “spectacular irony that those tasked to build friends for America around the world would treat each other with such disdain.”

Inter-agency rivalry is another huge hurdle for Ryker. Trying to grasp the murky, fluid situation developing in Mali, he receives conflicting accounts from State, the Pentagon, and the CIA, not to mention foreign governments and DC lobbyists. How can he cut through the layers of disinformation to find out what’s really going on? How can he restore Mali’s democratically elected president to power when his defense counterparts, who see that president as soft on terrorism, prefer to deal with a military strongman in Bamako?

Moss knows this territory intimately: From 2007-2008, he was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. As he mentioned in a recent interview with The Washington Post, one of the things he tried to do during his service at State was reverse a military coup in Mauritania. The imprint of that failed mission is evident throughout The Golden Hour, as Moss’s hero struggles to reconcile multiple conflicting agendas within the U.S. government to achieve his objective in Mali.

The plot is implausible at times, and formulaic in ways the author acknowledges. (At one point, aboard a helicopter racing toward Timbuktu, Ryker wonders, “am I becoming a caricature of the outsider in Africa, living out romantic fantasies?” The implied answer is “Damn right!”) Its African characters are mostly flat, serving either as villains or dispensers of cryptic, proverb-laden advice. The prose throughout does not exactly sparkle. For these reasons I cannot call The Golden Hour the best thriller, let alone the best work of fiction, I’ve read this year. (That distinction goes to David Shafer’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which simply blew my socks off. I’m still trying to find them.) But it’s an enjoyable, fast-paced read, and I find it encouraging that Moss was able to publish this book at all, given U.S. trade publishers’ disinterest in African subject material — see his essay for The Daily Beast on that score. I hope The Golden Hour sells well and helps generate public interest in African affairs.

And that reminds me: Like probably every other American who’s spent time in Mali, I’ve pondered writing my own novel set in that vibrant, colorful country. It’s the story of an intrepid American Fulbright scholar whose anthropological fieldwork in Bamako is interrupted by civil unrest, and to complete his mission he must confront renegade troops, intransigent leftist protesters, and U.S. embassy minders bent on restricting his grant funding and mobility. Publishers, please drop me a line. I just need a good name for my protagonist. Taking my inspiration from Moss, I’ve come up with a few possibilities, and invite you to vote for your favorite below:

Got a favorite novel that features Mali? Feel free to recommend it in the comments section. And you can catch Moss on NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show” on Tuesday, September 16.

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17 Responses to Book review: Can Judd Ryker save Malian democracy?

  1. Carin Wall says:

    Bruce, you missed to mention the great writer Seydou Badian, also a former politician, still alive (I met him several times). Has written several novels, for example La saison des pièges. Now writing his memoirs, i a. on the days he spent discussing philosophy and fishing with Che Guevara.

  2. I reckon any novel about Mali has to be about the music.
    And love the poll. I voted. Make it so.

  3. Jens says:

    None of those. How about Lljkjk Jones? 🙂
    But go ahead and write! I would read it, if the Africans in it were real people. White caucasians could provide a picturesque backdrop.

  4. Stephen Harmon says:

    Bruce, Thanks for the review. I ordered the novel. I’ll let you know what I think. As for my book, I’m still expecting release in November. I finished the last of the editing, the index, last week. It’s been sent to the printer. I’ll keep you posted. Thanks again for you help.


  5. Carl Whitehouse says:

    Just don’t name him Jack Reacher, who is the protagonist in a series by Lee Child. Why do all those names (Judd Ryker, Ted Striker and Jack Reacher) have to sound so similar?? I guess I’d have to suggest “something completely different” like one of the names in a Monty Python sketch.

    Have fun with it!

  6. mheberger says:

    Best novel set in Mali I’ve read was Aina Taylor’s English translation of Amadou Hampaté Bâ’s “The Fortunes of Wangrin.”

    Here’s my idea for your protagonist’s name: Kungo So Jeman.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      “Kungo So Jeman”? That’s a good one, but kind of literal. I think I will stick to my formula: first name of Brat Pack actor + last name of a male character on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Actually it’s Todd’s formula, I’m just borrowing it.

  7. Ernst Aebi says:

    Hi Bruce,
    Thanks for your reports from/about Mali, I love them. You mentioned books written about Mali, but missed mine: SEASONS OF SAND, Simon & Schuster 1993. It is about Araouane (260 kms north of Timbuktu) where I stayed for three years, describing my interactions with government, the population, the land.

  8. ERguinea2014 says:

    New to Bamako, and enjoying your great blog, but seriously, Picard, Crusher, LaForge? Unless you are writing a sci-fi spoof (set in Mali, THAT would be original!) I would avoid all of those names. Being constantly reminded of “Star Trek The Next Generation” while trying to read a novel set in Mali sounds horrifying to me. Good luck with the book, though. We could certainly use a novel that goes beyond the usual American expat stereotypes and two-dimensional African characters.

  9. Stephane says:

    In the same vein (i.e. political/espionage thrillers), there is “Panique à Bamako” by Gérard de Villiers for those familiar with the SAS serie.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Yes, the SAS series’ Mali installment makes for interesting reading. Published in late 2012, it incorporated actual events, beginning with a car crash on the Pont des Martyres involving three US special operations personnel in April of that year, and I understand that the author visited Bamako while writing the novel. I’m not sure how many other French-language thrillers set in Mali might have been published, but I suspect that Panique à Bamako is the most prominent among them.

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