WEST ORANGE, NJ — Summertime is the best time to catch up on reading. Take advantage of the long days, the various summer reading programs at the library and even the simple quiet of having the children away at camp to delve into a new book.
Consider reading “Citizen Kill,” by West Orange resident Stephen Clark. In his debut novel, Clark, a former journalist and editor, explores the lengths to which our country might conceivably go to counteract domestic terrorism. In this political thriller, main character Justin Raines struggles when his employer, the CIA, involves him in a new operation in which operatives kill — or as Justin and his colleagues prefer to say, “neutralize” — U.S. citizens suspected of radicalizing individuals to become terrorists. With qualms, Justin further questions the program when it names his next target as Zahra al Sharif, an innocent woman with whom he falls in love. And, on the sidelines, there is plenty of political intrigue as the vice president tries to take control from the president, a mother who is suffering the recent loss of her young son; various CIA personnel jockey for the top spot in the organization; and peripheral characters struggle to balance their loyalty to their country with their loyalty to basic human decency.
While this book is a fun read, it is probably best for the beach. Despite a dynamic story, the characters do not feel fully realized and this thriller often stretches the limits of believability in order to move the story along. For instance, Justin and Zahra fall in love so quickly that the reader practically gets whiplash. And, while having a female president is nice, the character is too one-dimensional to hold the reader’s interest; chapters focusing on the president feel like something you have to slog through in order to get back to the story.
Nevertheless, Clark did draw elements of his story from current events. Then, as novelists do, he manipulates the facts a bit and pushes them further, asking: What if?
“In 2012, then-Attorney General Eric Holder declared that it was constitutional for the government to kill U.S. citizens overseas without any judicial review if they were deemed a terrorist threat. Holder’s remarks came after a U.S. drone attack killed an American-born Muslim cleric in the Arabian Peninsula,” Clark told the West Orange Chronicle via email. “Given my experience covering national politics at FoxNews.com, I wanted to write a story that took that policy to its logical conclusion. A political thriller seemed to be the ideal vehicle.”
While not every aspect of the story is believable, the nitty gritty of counterterrorism certainly is. Having done extensive research for this novel, Clark’s take on the U.S. government’s commitment to wiping out domestic terrorism is both fascinating and horrifying.
“Even with my experience covering national politics, this book required extensive research on domestic terrorists, international terror groups and U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The FBI probably has a thick file on me,” Clark joked.
The author also takes the reader down the rabbit hole of extremism — both from radicalized Muslims and our own government. “Citizen Kill” leaves readers questioning their own deeply held beliefs.
“First and foremost, I hope people enjoy reading this book,” Clark said. “Beyond that, I just want readers to appreciate the importance of checks and balances on government power. We live in an era where the First Amendment is under assault from all sides, including the government, and its survival is very much in question. Part of what makes this country great is the constitutional rights guaranteed to all citizens. If those rights are gutted for whatever reason, then we not only destroy our standing in the world, but also our democracy.”
For Clark, these ideals were only reinforced when he moved to West Orange from the Bronx in January 2016.
“As a suburban Philly native, moving here felt like a return to my roots,” Clark said. “For me, West Orange is the embodiment of the American dream: affordable houses, diverse neighborhoods and great schools. If anything, living here has only reinforced my views that we need to be ever vigilant in protecting our core values as guaranteed by the Constitution.”
While some of the characters in “Citizen Kill” were less than commanding, others left the reader — and Clark — wanting more.
“I have some favorite characters who didn’t get as much time in the limelight because the novel follows a wide spectrum of characters, from a CIA operative to the president to a suspected terrorist to a reporter,” Clark said. “For example, I really wanted to spend more time with FBI Agent Dave Maguire, who has a very interesting background with his military experience, religious beliefs and family values. I enjoyed the chapter in which he is given the opportunity of a lifetime to catch an infamous terrorist. In another story, he could be the lead character. I also wanted to spend more time with Justin’s team on their adventures stealing secrets from embassies and hunting terrorists around the globe. But that’s another story.”
And maybe Clark will tell some of those stories in the future, though right now he is working on his second novel, one with all new characters.
“I’m working on a psychological thriller centered on a deadly police shooting that sets a guilt-ridden cop on a collision course with the victim’s revenge-seeking sister and her deadbeat father,” Clark said.
To purchase “Citizen Kill,” which was released earlier this month by WiDo Publishing, visit http://widopublishing.com/citizen-kill-by-stephen-clark/.