In Phil Halton’s RED WARNING, a corrupt Kabul policeman investigates a murder against the backdrop of the impending 1978 communist coup. Halton tackles his subject with the usual tension and realism, putting you in another culture and making it immediately feel relevant to offer a story that is simultaneously exotic and familiar.
I’d first discovered Halton at a local bookstore when I picked up THIS SHALL BE A HOUSE OF PEACE, about the founding of the Taliban, and then sought out EVERY ARM OUTSTRETCHED, about a Sandinista guerilla fighter seeking to topple the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua. Two ambitious topics, given old Cold War and newer War on Terror taboos. As a warrior himself–as a Canadian Forces officer, he served in hot spots around the world–Halton did each justice, hooking me with exotic stories that feel lived-in and are engaging.
In RED WARNING, we’re introduced to Lieutenant Mohammed Mirwais Ahmadzai, a police investigator. At first glance, he appears to be fairly mercenary, but really it’s about personal survival, while hopefully being able to do his job. Over the course of the story, we see him relentlessly pursue and hunt down his quarry, only to be frustrated by how Afghanistan works, whether it’s the secret police, political pressure from the Americans, corruption, and the stubborn independence of the Pashtun tribes in the countryside, who only want the national government to leave them alone.
This is a country that is difficult to police and where the police are largely just another tribe requiring tribute, but in 1978 as it was when the Taliban recently retook the country, it was not all one stereotype, it’s a nation of intricate feuds, alliances, and political aspirations. At the time, communism appeared to offer the best bet to modernize the country into the twentieth century.
In short, RED WARNING is a lot of fun. The story is engaging and real, the protagonist flawed but likeable, the lived-in cultural setting fascinating, and the dialogue sharp.