In David Ricciardi’s debut book, the brilliantly twisted espionage thriller Warning Light, he takes his unusual protagonist Zac Miller, an intelligence analyst, through a ringer of troubles that destroys the protagonist’s life. Warning Light caught me off guard as it’s not a stereotypical action thriller that we’re used to in recent years, but reads like a classic tale of a one-man-hero’s fight for survival where almost everyone and everything tries to kill him. Ricciardi’s narration is technically intense like Tom Clancy’s works but is very character driven where the readers feel the paranoia, fear, smarts, toughness, despair, joy, pain, and cunning of Miller. The simple yet elegantly written story also has a Ludlum-esque feel with the classic espionage tropes and protagonist’s globe-trotting odyssey to survive and clear his name.
The story begins when a passenger aircraft from British airways is forced to make an unexpected stop in the Iranian desert because of technical difficulties. Though the Iranian military is distrustful, they host the passengers for a day before another aircraft from British airlines takes them back,… all except one. Zac Millier, officially a technology consultant for a corporate firm, is a CIA desk jockey who volunteered for an operation he deemed harmless. When he’s spotted clicking a few pictures of the desert’s scenery with his phone at the unexpected stop in Iran, he’s made himself a suspect and accidentally damages a complex intelligence operation jointly orchestrated by the British SIS and the American CIA. Zac gets discreetly captured, and an Iranian counter-operation sends a look-alike with Zac’s papers on the plane that carries the British airlines’ passengers to their original destination of Singapore.
Now, in what begins as a long sequence of gruesome torture and interrogation, Zac becomes the obsession of the book’s main villain, Colonel Arzaman, a sadistic tactician who’s burnt a whole side of his face and body in a war a few decades ago. Fearing his execution, Zac catches his sentries off-guard and kills his way to safety. He is not a character with any former military experience and is the opposite of the usual badass action hero by the start of the story. His first kills pale in comparison to the man Zac becomes by the end after he’s had to keep outsmarting, outfighting, killing, tricking, running, evading, and surviving his way through a complex plot where most of the elements involved are not known to him till the end.
Back in London’s station, an American spymaster has written Zac off as dead before he learns Zac is now a wanted man for the rape and murder of an underage girl in Singapore, soon followed by news of the same from Paris at a crime scene dated just before Zack left Europe for the recon operation in Iran to gather intel on the progress of Iranian nuclear weapons development program. The evidence is on point at both the crime scenes, with Zac’s DNA and fingerprints, making the shrewd spymaster officially target Zac for termination, unaware that all the evidence against Zac is part of an Iranian plot to disrupt their enemies.
From long dehydrated hikes in the desert to shootouts with soldiers, having to kill a civilian to befriending a tribe, and making it to a port city with both his immediate allies and enemies gunning for him, Zac manages to steal a yacht and heads to Dubai where more trouble awaits. He’s arrested and then goes through another long sequence of torture by a senior cop who happens to be connected to Arzaman. Zac seized the opportunity to outsmart and outfight his way away from this situation but is still hunted on the streets of UAE by Arzaman’s kill squads of IRGC commandos and the CIA paramilitary who are also out to kill him. He stows on a freighter and hides till he escapes to the French coast. He’s aided by a woman he’d been dating who happens to be a French DGSE intelligence officer, who believes his tale and helps him hide. Zac crosses the English channel in stormy waters in another stolen yacht, but this time he’s unlucky as his body eventually washes ashore to the rocky Dover cliffs. Even when he’s on life support in a hospital bed after someone notices and pulls out his body, Zac’s still in a load of trouble. An Iranian paramilitary squad of operators is there to finish their counter operation, handy with a cadaver that matches, along with Colonel Arzaman heated in his vendetta. Rushing to the spot is a CIA covert operations squad led by a Machiavellian spymaster who’s out to salvage a series of screwups by using all his tricks.
It might seem like I’ve given away a lot of the plot, but it doesn’t matter. The plot’s more complex than whatever I’ve revealed and Ricciardi’s magic lies in his narrative which packs his tale in a fairly short page count but still makes it feel detailed, dramatic, long, and intense. It’s definitely not an action-packed thrill-ride but is an espionage classic from recent years which is a gruesome and cerebral treat to read. With short chapters and a crisply moving plot, Warning Light is surely a page-turner when compared to many other cerebral spy thrillers but there are a few shootouts and fights to even satisfy the action fanatics. On one level the book’s an empowering tale of survival and on another, it’s also a tale of the destruction of a protagonist which works very well as a weirdly smart origin story.
Zac is indirectly aided by a few allies at different places, but he’s technically alone for almost the entire story with no back-up, contingencies, or support. This thriller is a more serious version of taking an analytical and cerebral character like the ‘Jack Ryan(Sr.) archetype’ and plunging him into a deadly Ludlum-esque plot of conspiracies, betrayals, accidental screw-ups, survival, and action. Warning Light is a must-read for spy thriller and action thriller readers who want to venture into something different yet memorable. I’ll be reading the sequels eventually and am already a fan of David Ricciardi’s narrative style.