A Thriller Whose Time Has Come

Set in West Africa, the recent page turner by Todd Moss, A92, reveals the inside battles behind 21st-century international crises

Can the United States reverse a coup in the West African nation of Mali in time to return its democratically elected president to power? It’s all up to Judd Ryker, statistics nerd and the unlikely hero of The Golden Hour (Penguin, 2014), the debut novel by Todd Moss, A92, due out in paperback this summer.

Reading this thriller is like watching a ticking time bomb. The coup unfolds while U.S. State Department officials scramble to analyze events and find the best course of action. In a plot of surprises and sly twists, tensions build on two fronts: Washington’s frenetic, politically charged meetings and Mali’s on-the-ground upheavals, including a militant takeover, terrorist incursions, hostage-taking and covert operations.

If the novel’s realism is compelling it is because Moss, like his protagonist Ryker, was called to help reverse a real coup in West Africa—in his case, Mauritania in 2008, when he was deputy assistant secretary of state under Condoleezza Rice at the end of the George W. Bush administration.

“We’ve always had thrillers set in Europe, a lot in the Middle East,” says Todd Moss. “Now, why not set them in Africa?” “We’ve always had thrillers set in Europe, a lot in the Middle East,” says Todd Moss. “Now, why not set them in Africa?”
“I was in Washington, having brunch with my family on a Sunday morning, when I got a phone call to come in,” Moss says. “A few days later I was in Mauritania talking to the general who had just overthrown the country’s democratically elected president, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi. He was in prison, but only a few weeks earlier had been sitting next to President Bush at a global democracy forum.”

Though most Americans don’t know much about Mauritania, Moss explains that it was, at the time, the only largely Arab country to have a democratically elected leader. The United States supported the government, which was a strong partner in fighting the regional Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb organization.

“The debate inside Washington was, should we support the democracy in Mauritania or just work with a general [Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz] who, though he committed the coup, was our military partner against Al Qaeda?” Moss says.

In the end Moss was not able to convince Abdel Aziz to step down; he went on to win the presidential election in 2009 and remains in office. “The whole experience was great fodder for a book,” Moss says.

Moss had first started to write a nonfiction account of the coup in Mauritania and the subsequent infighting in Washington between members of the counterterrorism, democracy and regional bureaus in the Department of State.

But he finally decided he could tell a better story through fiction. Driving the novel is the concept of a “golden hour,” a term from emergency medicine for the hour following a traumatic injury, when there is the best chance for intervention to ensure survival. Moss learned about the golden hour as an undergraduate student working as an EMT with Tufts Emergency Medical Services (TEMS) and Somerville-based Cataldo Ambulance Services.

In the novel, Judd Ryker has developed an algorithm that can calculate the golden hour for responding to global emergencies most effectively. In Mali, that is just four days, as U.S. operatives swoop in.

“The golden hour doesn’t exist in the way Judd Ryker finds it in real data, but I do believe there is a golden hour, a window of opportunity when you can influence events,” Moss says. “And if you miss that window, you lose your opportunity for leverage.”

Life Imitates Art

For a first-time novelist, it pays to be timely. When Moss was pitching his manuscript to literary agents, none thought Americans would want to read a thriller set in Africa. Then there was a real coup followed by an uprising in Mali in 2012, as the country experienced spillover effects from the overthrow of neighboring Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. It was all over the news when the French military intervened to recapture the northern half of Mali from Islamist radicals.

“The agent who had my book happened to be watching BBC News that day and said, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t know we were fighting terrorists in Mali—I have a book about this,’ and three weeks later he had sold the book to Penguin,” Moss says.

Penguin liked the book so much, in fact, that it gave Moss a four-book contract for a Judd Ryker series. His second, Minute Zero, about a contested election in Zimbabwe, is due out in September.

“Minute zero” is a concept in international relations, referring to the chaotic time after a natural disaster or the death of a long-serving political leader, when no one knows what will happen next.

Moss says he first became an “Africa junkie” when he did a semester abroad in Zimbabwe while an undergraduate at Tufts; after graduation, he traveled around Africa for another year.

Now, after his State Department career, he continues to travel throughout the continent as chief operating officer and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a Washington think tank. His focus is on U.S.-Africa relations and financial issues facing sub-Saharan Africa.

Moss says he’s happy he’s bringing more awareness to a region of the world many Americans know little about, even if it’s only in a fictional account. “We’ve always had thrillers set in Europe, a lot in the Middle East,” Moss says. “Now, why not set them in Africa?”

Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.

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