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Can Howard Gordon thrill in paperback?

By Emma Lacey-Bordeaux, CNN
Howard Gordon, used to creating heart-stopping action on the small screen, tries his hand at the written word.
Howard Gordon, used to creating heart-stopping action on the small screen, tries his hand at the written word.
  • Howard Gordon, executive producer of TV's "24," has lots of action in his first book
  • As a first-time author, Gordon is challenged by the new medium
  • "Gideon's War" looks at how people behave when dearly held principles are challenged
  • Howard Gordon
  • 24 (TV Show)
  • Books

(CNN) -- On a sunny day in Atlanta, my colleague Suzanne Kelly and I sat down to speak with the executive producer of the popular TV series "24," Howard Gordon.

The self-proclaimed newspaper junkie and armchair policy hobbyist had agreed to squeeze us in for a phone interview about his latest project, a 320-page thriller titled "Gideon's War."

Having never read a thriller before, I was especially excited to talk to Gordon about the foreign genre. Typically, I read the kind of books that make people's eyes glaze over at cocktail parties. Even on vacation, I choose the latest tome on post-colonial Algeria.

One memorable college spring break, "The 9/11 Commission Report" sat nestled in my beach bag, along with my SPF 15. Perhaps sensing this sad trend, Kelly -- herself an author of one of the many excellent nonfiction books I've read recently -- loaned me her copy of "Gideon's War" before I left on a recent trip to Portugal.

I had some concerns, I admit, not least among them the giant American flag on cover of the book. That can't be good for international travel, I thought.

As it turned out, "Gideon's War" was perfectly suited for a foreign vacation because beyond all the excitement lies the quandary Americans have grappled with since 9/11: How do we keep ourselves safe without alienating the rest of the globe?

It is safe to say that most of Gordon's readers will have never experienced the fantastical scenes played out in the book, which is part of the fun. I am happy to experience dodging bullets in the jungle while wearing a tuxedo only from the safety of a couch.

Ditto for scrambling along the underbelly of a deep-sea oil rig while wearing only skivvies as a hurricane bears down. Did I mention this book reads like it is tailor made for a silver screen adaptation?

And speaking of the oil rig -- the stage upon which much of the confrontation plays out -- Gordon says it is just an unfortunate coincidence that his novel has a doom scenario involving a drilling platform. The rig was written into his novel long before the Deep Water Horizon blew up in the Gulf of Mexico, he said, adding that writers "have a strange dance with reality."

This is Gordon's first book. "The biggest challenge was the sheer volume of words," he said, adding that it was an adjustment from writing for TV, where you simply lay out a blueprint and rely on others to help out.

In fairness, there are a few points in the book that could have used a little help. For instance, Gordon reminds the reader several times about the impediments to defusing a bomb, a plot device that would come off better with talented actors helping the audience along.

Also there are groan-inducing moments, like when our hero, Gideon Davis, first lays eyes on Kate Murphy, the female lead. The tough-as-nails rig boss Murphy appears in a ransom message broadcast on, of all places, CNN.

"She was in her early thirties, her long auburn hair framing a face that was beautiful even without makeup." That passage may inspire eye rolling, at least from female readers. By the way, CNN doesn't make a habit of broadcasting videos made under duress, but hey, you can't write a thriller without taking certain liberties!

While Gordon certainly takes creative license, he is unrelentingly graphic in his portrayal of violence. A man is shot in the face in the first three pages of the book, setting the tone for a tempo of violence that does not abate.

Machine guns blow bodies to bits, spears strike people down, and one poor fellow is dispatched by a sock full of ball bearings. Honestly, it was all enough to turn my stomach, at times.

Gordon says all of this is intentional, written to "deal honestly with the central premise of the book:" How a person behaves when real-life circumstances challenge dearly held personal principles.

And that's what makes Gordon's writing compelling. Beyond the outlandish scenarios lies the essential problem that individual Americans and our nation as a whole struggle with: when to compromise, and at what cost.