By Basil Sands
Sandman Products of Alaska
Albanians. North Koreans. Lost love. Abandoned military secrets. Bone-chilling cold. Marcus “Mojo” Johnson meets all of these disparate elements when he retires to his old homestead in Salt Jacket, Alaska, after a career in the military, in Basil Sands’ novel 65 Below.
Johnson, who we will meet in another Sands novel, Midnight Sun, wants nothing more than to live a quiet, subsistence lifestyle off the grid in his small dry cabin in the tiny town on the outskirts of Eielson Air Force Base. After decades as a special ops Marine, carrying out secret missions in every terrorist-ridden hotspot in the world, Johnson has returned home, older, tired, and still heartbroken over losing his long-time love Lonnie Wyatt. But trouble seems to follow Mojo wherever he goes – or maybe he’s just one of those guys who just gets dropped into trouble, his Fate forever being to save the world. No matter.
The novel begins on a cold, cold night in the depths of winter, with a regional blackout darkening the Interior. An electric company employee checks the substation to determine the cause, and discovers evidence of tampering and other mysteries. This brings the Alaska State Troopers into the picture, and Lt. Lonnie Wyatt just happens to be on duty when the call comes in.
At the same time, Johnson is almost killed by a speeding electric company truck on the highway, and he goes to the nearest store to call it in to the troopers. While discussing the incident with the storekeeper, two men enter the store, speaking Albanian, which Johnson – he with an amazing talent for languages – understands. He feigns ignorance, though, because something just doesn’t smell right. When the men leave, the troopers are called. Johnson takes his leave, having a trapline to run early the next morning.
Meanwhile, the troopers are finding evidence of weirdness and perhaps terrorism in the electric outage. When the stolen company vehicle is discovered in a Farmers Loop neighborhood, the trooper discovering it is killed, which brings down a storm of troopers (pun intended).
While Johnson is running his friend’s trapline on Eielson, he finds a group of North Koreans digging furiously into an old bunker. Their methods and secrecy imply a military motivation, and Johnson overhears some things he finds very suspicious (yes, he speaks Korean, too). He tries to get the authorities at Eielson involved, but they ignore him; one MP threatens to have him arrested. So he goes to Fort Wainwright, where he finds a number of old friends stationed in positions helpful to a man trying to thwart what looks to be an attempted terrorist act.
Johnson’s Special Forces friends accompany him to the spot where he found the Koreans, and a bloody firefight ensues, leaving Johnson and his friends with a bunch of very dead Tangos (military speak for terrorist) and one prisoner of war, a frightened chemist.
From here, the action speeds into warp, with the troopers, the military, a very unlikeable FBI agent, and Johnson, along with Wyatt and a pipeline security guard, trying to prevent a devastating plague from being unleashed in the Last Frontier. Along the way, Johnson recalls his near-death experience and fights in Sierra Leone, rekindles his relationship with Lonnie, and kicks the crud out of a bunch of bad guys.
It’s obvious this is an earlier book from Sands, as there are a few missteps, mostly typos and misspellings. But the affinity for story-telling and character building are evident, and the painstaking details show a writer who knows his craft and his subject very well. It’s also evident Sands is an Alaskan, especially in his loving descriptions of the landscape, and even Johnson’s dry cabin, a dwelling and lifestyle that would be considered primitive in most places, but is ubiquitous in Alaska. Sands details the Alaska life quite well – we see Johnson’s cabin, feel the sweat as he cuts cord upon cord of wood for his stove, shiver in the 65-below cold as it numbs our faces. But the details are never overwhelming or just for show – they add to the story but never detract from it, making this an effortless read.
Thrillers set in Alaska are very rare, and usually written by Outsiders who haven’t spent much time here. Sands is very good, combining all the elements of a good thriller with the details of our wonderful state, making for a jolly good read.