Golden Hour: Debut novel makes geopolitical dysfunction thrilling

Scene from the 2012 'real coup' in Mali, of soldiers come to arrest the Prime Minister. The Golden Hour is a fictional account of such an event and until the movie gets made, reality will have to suffice for illustration. AP

Almost everyone outside of the U.S. government is chronically mystified at why the world’s most powerful nation, with some of the best diplomatic and technical minds, armed with the planet’s biggest and most ubiquitous military and foreign aid presence often can’t accomplish its geopolitical goals in even some of the weakest and neediest places.

Tired of being mystified? Then you should read the debut thriller novel The Golden Hour by Todd Moss, a former State Department official who in 2007-2008 served as lead diplomat to West Africa and knows first-hand what happens when the U.S. government is faced with a political crisis overseas.

Todd Moss

Todd Moss

“First, I wanted it to be fun,” said Moss, who is chief operating officer and senior fellow at a prestigious D.C.-based think tank, the Center for Global Development.

Humanosphere follows Moss’ work at the CGD focused on using financial schemes and market-based strategies to fight poverty and propel development. So we read with great anticipation his fictional description of what it’s like to be in the middle of a foreign policy crisis.

The Golden Hour opens with a coup in Mali (something Moss thought was going to be totally fictional, but which became a reality in 2012) followed by the State Department sending the academic and book’s lead protagonist Judd Ryker into the fray to test in the field his theory that political crises are best defused within 100 hours to avoid them becoming entrenched.

Moss_THE-GOLDEN-HOUR“It’s based on the medical idea of the golden hour, that you have this window of opportunity to act to save a life … or a country,” he said.  It’s not a real geopolitical theory, Moss noted, but it’s a good plotting device for creating urgent tension and pace.

And, hoo-boy, is there tension and pace! The books moves as fast as I would imagine a novel based on the TV show 24’s character Jack Bauer would read – if I would ever read a book based on that TV show.

But what makes The Golden Hour so much more compelling, and realistic, than most such thrillers is that Ryker is not using guns or violence to achieve his ends.

No, Ryker uses his wit, intelligence, humanity and chess-like strategic moves (often against his own American colleagues) to try to defuse the situation and bring the good people of Mali back into power against the rebels.

It’s diplomacy in a pressure cooker rather than another shoot-em-up.

“I wanted to take people inside the situation room during crisis and show them what it’s like,” Moss said. “What may surprise people is how adversarial it can be, which is also why it can become dysfunctional. There are hundreds of people representing multiple agencies all fighting for their turf and agendas.”

We might have expected a wonky novel from a Beltway wonk and reformed bureaucrat, but The Golden Hour is indeed thrilling and, yes, fun. It reads like something John le Carré (in his earlier, less rambling and cranky days) might have crafted, or maybe Tom Clancy.

Yet it’s important to again emphasize that what Moss does here is make a diplomat, rather than spies or soldiers, the hero.

That’s not easy and yet even when Ryker makes a cell phone call somewhere in the middle of the desert in northern Mali, you can’t help but tense up. It’s just a phone call, in which he lies to his wife Jessica about everything being just fine, but even without bullets flying at the moment you tense up and want him to get off the phone and keep moving.

The book pokes fun at the nature of bureaucracy and the in-fighting, but it also offers an encouraging perspective on the power of personal relationships. As a former diplomat, Moss knows that progress and conflict resolution – even at the highest levels – do not happen by process and structure so much as they still depend for success on the actions of individuals, sometimes acting only on trust and instinct.

“The system is set up for people to do battle,” Moss said. “You have to establish and build up personal relationships to get things done.”

That’s a strong subtext in the novel, and it is Ryker’s personal faith in some key Malians – combined with a healthy mistrust of some of his American colleagues – that wins the day.

In addition to providing readers with an inside look at how the U.S. government responds to such political crises overseas, Moss said he wanted to portray Africa as it really is and to encourage a more sophisticated and accurate view of the continent – as opposed to the standard narrative of it being exotic or a basket case.

“Africa is becoming more important to our interests, but we’re only now catching on,” Moss said. Many other countries, like China, are working in partnership with African nations on economic and development fronts, he said, but the U.S. is only now trying to shift from viewing the continent as either a charity recipient or just a location with lots of natural resources (oil, minerals) for simple extraction.

“We have to change our mindset,” said Moss, adding that he intends to keep writing thrillers aimed at helping do just that.

The book is out today and for those protesting Amazon’s approach to publishing there are other order options available at Moss’ website. Stay tuned for the next adventure of Judd Ryker, who has to deal with an unraveling authoritarian government in Zimbabwe. It’s a novel, yes, but if Moss’ predictive powers in fiction play out in reality again, Robert Mugabe may want to consider pre-emptive retirement.

The Golden Hour is a great and informative read that provides real insight into foreign policy, into the machinations of our government and into what often happens behind the scenes in a political crisis.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.