Wisecracking heroes are a dime a dozen in thrillers, but with his latest novel “Shadow State,” Frank Sennett thrusts a complexly rendered ex-Secret Service agent named Rafe Hendrix into a multiple-assassination plot rooted in forgotten tragic corners of American history.
The novel impressively weaves in highly original characters (such as U.S. President Wyetta Johnson—a Black, lesbian, amputee former Army Ranger who’s Hendrix’s best friend) and intriguing parallels between anarchists of the past and the Proud Boys and the right-wing fringes of the present.
Hendrix is suffering severe PTSD and living in a small house in the Texas desert as he tries to come to terms with the fact that his sniper shot protecting the First Lady of the United States two years before coincided with a terrorist bomb that killed a classroom full of children, including his daughter Becca. He tentatively forms a relationship with a local veterinarian named Melody Sanchez, but the budding romance is cut short shockingly by her sniper-fire assassination at the exact point where JFK was shot dead.
Hendrix snaps into action as he realizes that Sanchez’s killing is revenge for the school bombing, and that the unknown perpetrator is drawing Rafe into a dangerous hopscotch across the country. A U.S. history aficionado, Hendrix quickly realizes that a series of mysterious murders across the nation are copycat killings inspired by presidential assassination, both successful and attempted.
His action-packed investigation is fueled by the fact that the mysterious killer has killed his ex-wife and is holding his five-year-old hostage, under threat of death. It’s also complicated by the fact that a seemingly random showdown with a neighbor has spurred Proud Boy thugs to pursue and attempt to kill him everywhere he turns.
“Shadow State” is great fun, as Sennett explores fascinating yet largely forgotten plots against presidents John F. Kennedy, Lincoln and McKinley as well as that of 1968 Democratic nominee Robert F. Kennedy. The book serves as a fascinating history lesson at several points in the narrative, with a particularly enthralling sequence describing the Baltimore Plot, a top-secret mission to save Lincoln from death during his inaugural train ride to Washington D.C., long before the Civil War began.
Also impressive is the fact that the novel is filled with an impressive array of female heroes, romantic interests and vicious villains—all without seeming heavy-handed in its gender politics, nor its fun look at the fascist movements embroiling American society. One can vividly imagine an all-star cast eager to play roles of depth in a blockbuster movie filled with this kind of excitement.
Ohe drawback to the novel is that its crisp dialogue is at times too expository, but then again Hendrix’s explanations of the dastardly doings of nefarious networks is key to keeping viewers aligned with the expansive cast of characters. But ultimately, the novel’s initial slow burn turns sharply into a pedal-to-the-metal series of jaw-dropping twists and one hell of a finale that’s immensely satisfying.
At the end, Sennett—who was my editor at Newcity in the 1990s—notes that the James Bond films that inspired his work always end with the onscreen phrase “James Bond will return.” He closes with his own afterword promise that “Rafe Hendrix will return,” and here’s hoping it won’t be a long time in coming.
By Frank Sennett
Crooked Lane Books, 288 pages