Michelle Gagnon’s 2009 book, The Gatekeeper, is an exceptionally prescient work of fiction and especially fun read. I’m not saying Gagnon’s book foresaw the rise of populism and the hard turn toward xenophobia the Republican Party took shortly thereafter, or certainly the rise of Trump as the flagbearer of both currents pulsating through our body politic, but I’m not not saying it, either. Seriously, it is rather striking, though, that there is even a Trump-like figure within the book who tries to capitalize off of a coup attempt of sorts!
I grabbed Gagnon’s book off my bookshelf yesterday because I saw Lee Child’s accurate blurb on the cover, “High stakes, tension, excitement — I loved The Gatekeeper!” Blurbs work! Once I got rolling with the book, it didn’t take long to turn into a page-turner. You know you’re ready a fun fiction book when it’s 200 pages later, and you stand up to stretch your back (at least, I stand up to stretch my back), and it didn’t feel like 200 pages later.
The Gatekeeper I believe is the third in Gagnon’s FBI Special Agent Kelly Jones series, with Jones characterized as a no-nonsense, smart agent, who tries to abide by the rules, and is peripherally worried about her fiancé, Jake Riley, not only because he is more willing to flout the rules, but also because their relationship seems rocky at best (due to work, geographical distance, revaluating if they have the “spark” as a couple, and Jake, it should be said, seems to be infatuated with his “friend” and business partner, Syd). Jake and Syd started their own kidnap and ransom agency to help track down kidnapped corporate persons in foreign countries, but Syd, as a favor to her boyfriend, Randall, takes on his case when his 16-year-old daughter, Madison, is kidnapped. We learn that Randall handles low-level radioactive waste disposal and storage for the United States government.
Simultaneously, we learn that Jackson Burke, inspired by Timothy McVeigh, is trying to coral all the skinheads, Aryans, Minuteman, and other racist groups together under his direction to orchestrate a false flag operation wherein they first, kill a U.S. Senator (and Burke takes his seat), and then set off three dirty bombs in immigration-heavy cities in the United States (San Diego, Dallas, and Phoenix) and put the blame on illegal Mexicans. The goal, aside from Burke gaining power, is to “take America back” from the illegals who have taken over the country. The first part of the plan goes off without a hitch. The second is what involves Randall, his job, and capitalizing on his vulnerability after his divorce to his wife. They cajole him with money at first, and then up the stakes by taking Madison.
The kidnapping theatrics and the nonexistent job Randall does aside, does any of this feel like a foreshadowing of where the Republican Party is these days, and the rise of such hate groups animated in particular around so-called “illegal” immigrants? Burke is a businessman with no prior government experience, a teetotaler (until his plans go up in, uh, smoke later), and has obvious disdain for the very people he claims to be the spokesperson and leader of (the “rednecks,” as he calls them). Again, does any of this sound like the foreshadowing of a certain somebody? I couldn’t resist noticing these parallels, and again, this is a book that came out in 2009. Gagnon said she was sparked to write the book after a discussion with a FBI friend of hers about how in the United States, there was both the rise of these domestic hate groups and a corresponding diminishing of focus on them in favor of foreign threats, such as Al-Qaeda, because of 9/11.
The issue, of course, with hate groups like that these is they are unorganized and disparate. That’s why Gagnon’s book imagines, what if they weren’t? And, what if they had a populist leader to unify and lead them? We’ve seen the fruits of where that can lead (attacks on the very seat of the United States government, for example). Fortunately, nothing as dramatic as the possibility of multiple dirty bombs, like in her book. Yet.
Gagnon’s book, which starts with a rather basic, if terrifying, kidnapping and ransom scheme, spins out into something much larger, more odious, and again, impressively prescient.
To stop the dirty bombs false flag operation are Jones, Riley, Syd, and other FBI agents, including Jones’ partner, Agent Rodriguez, a Hispanic, who ends up proving to be more interesting than he initially appeared. Syd comes from “the Agency,” aka the CIA. What frustrated me about the plot to stop … the dirty bomb plot — and this isn’t a fault of Gagnon; in fact, I think it reads entirely true to form, which is why it’s frustrating! — is that the various FBI agents, field offices, Jones, Riley, Syd, and even the FBI versus the local police, get in pissing matches over who has control over the case and who gets a say in the direction of the case, that it actively hinders stopping the false flag operation. But again, I think that’s true to form in reality, although supposedly that was corrected after 9/11 with better intelligence sharing, databases across national, state, and local agencies, and of course, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. But color me skeptical.
What’s particularly fun, is that Jones and Riley, unbeknownst to the other, are working the exact same case, just different ends of it, and they don’t realize it until 275 pages in or so. As a matter of fact, arguably, they would have realized it sooner (and maybe solved the case sooner!), if they were on better personal communicative terms. Alas. The dirty bomb slated for Phoenix does go off, but Randall, before being executed, was able to ensure the “dirty” part of it — the radioactive material — wouldn’t detonate, thus, saving scores of people. The bomb in Dallas is foiled without incidence. As for San Diego, our protagonist, Jones, is able to stop the bomb from going off, but the person with the detonator (which was being jammed by the FBI) had a back-up C-4 explosive, killing and maiming the nearby agents, including Jones.
The books ends with her in a coma, and without a definitive answer to whether she will come out of it. As for Burke, Syd, being all “Agency” and such, clandestinely breaks into Burke’s Virginian home and tampers with his blood pressure medication to make it appear like he he had a heart attack. She wanted to make sure he got dealt his comeuppance since politicians seem to always skate past any justice.
Overall, I think more people should read this book! I can’t get over a.) how much fun it was from a pure book-reading experience; I devoured it easily over two days; and b.) how much it seemed like something that could’ve been written in 2023 in response to the last seven or eight years of headlines rather than something written in 2009. That Gagnon’s book to date has only 253 ratings on Goodreads is a shame, because more eyes and minds should reckon with its story. It’s pretty freaky to consider the potential dangers, to say the least, and I think her warning between the lines that we like to think we’re prepared, especially after 9/11, but maybe we’re not. We are a big country, after all, and the FBI can’t monitor everything (nor should they, given civil liberty safeguards), not to say anything of issues like radioactivity going unmonitored.
But yeah, I’ll hop off my soapbox that I could ramble on for a lot longer; I really enjoyed this book, if you can’t tell. I’m delighted to see Gagnon has another book coming out this year. I’ll be adding it to my “to-read” list.