Thursday, April 23, 2009

Michael Westen at Sea: A Review of Burn Notice: The End Game

By Wesley Britton

Burn Notice: The End Game
by Tod Goldberg
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Signet (May 5, 2009)
ISBN-10: 0451226763

You spend the majority of your life in the company of spies and you begin to realize certain truths, chief among them that in order to be a good spy, you have to love your job. Statistically speaking, this is unusual. Most people hate their jobs. Most people wish they were doing something more interesting with their lives. So they go home and they watch television shows about people they can never be, or they read books about fantasy worlds they'll never inhabit, or they get on to the Internet and take on a persona, either on a message board or in a role-playing game, and they while away their free time pretending and then wake up the next day and head back to the cubicle maze. But when you're a spy, every day has the potential to be completely unlike the previous day. That kind of adrenaline is difficult to replace. I wanted to solve my burn notice and get my job back not merely because I wasn't overly fond of being manipulated by forces that wanted to use me for their own devices, nor because I found their belief that I'd capitulate to their will—as however many other burned agents had over the years—specifically rude and disrespectful, never mind that it's never fun being shot at on a regular basis. No, I wanted to solve my burn notice because I wanted my life back—the life I'd chosen. Dealing with the mundane was not a job I was uniquely qualified for. (Tod Goldberg, Burn Notice: The End Game)

One of my favorite reading pleasures during the 1960s was stopping by the book section of our local department store and finding new titles based on my favorite TV shows. There were so many choices and they seemed to come out like magazines, new books every month—The Avengers, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Invaders, GetSmart. Many were published in long-lasting series like U.N.C.L.E. with its 23 titles coming out like clockwork.

Back in those days, the adventures were short, usually around 160 pages. The books sold for about 45 cents. (I just noticed there’s no cent mark on my keyboard, a sign of the times for sure). You came to know certain authors would be interesting, like David McDaniel or Keith Laumer. Others would be odd, as in John Garforth’s unusual Avengers stories. The best you could hope for would be tales where the characters were true to their TV personas and the plots would keep you turning the page. I turned many a page.

Back then, of course, we didn’t have DVDs or on demand channels or YouTube so our only connections to our heroes in between the weekly broadcasts were the floods of merchandising items aimed for my generation, the lunchboxes, guns, magazines, books. For me, the tie-in novels were special. They were like extra episodes, extra stories about my heroes that Hollywood didn’t have time to film. When the spring repeats began and the summer replacement series kicked in, we had books to read. The actors might be on break, but the characters they played were still in danger, still jet-setting around the world, still taking on clandestine assignments with no commercial breaks.

I felt some of that old excitement when I read Tod Goldberg’s first Burn Notice novel, The Fix, when it came out last year. Once again, I had a book to read about some interesting characters when the show itself was on hiatus. That’s true again of his second contribution, End Game, again published when there aren’t any new episodes airing on USA. What are Mike, Sam, Fi and the rest doing while the next season is in preparation? Well, Tod Goldberg has one story to tell.

While reading End Game, and its predecessor The Fix, I admit thinking back to adventures of old and how times have changed. For one matter, the Burn Notice novels have a much heftier page count. That cent mark has no place on the cover. More importantly, Goldberg has opportunities and challenges few novelist of the ‘60s had. Take the character of John Drake in the Danger Man books. What did the writers, or TV viewers for that matter, know about Drake’s background? Where did he come from? What did he do when not on the business of NATO or Her Majesty’s Secret Service? With no back-story to work with, novelists were limited to sticking to fast-moving plots, and in many of those books, any agent’s name would have worked as well as any other. Sometimes, as in the Mission: Impossible or I Spy novels by John Tiger, the writer created a virtual alternate reality—using the character names but creating personal descriptions and circumstances never seen on television.

Luckily for Tod Goldberg, Michael Westen is a completely different story. Not only is Westen operating in his home town, Westen can’t distance himself from his past. Not with Mom and little brother Nate around. Mom, in particular, is always seeking—dare we use the term?—quality time with her son. So starting off End Game with Michael enlisting Fi to help him with the simple task of seeking out a Mother’s Day present and card give End Game character aspects we’d not seen back when the families of spies were neither seen nor heard.

Another challenge—and opportunity-- for Goldberg are Westen’s trademark “When you’re a spy” monologues. Westen’s first-person observations on spycraft give us alleged insights into what secret agents are doing out in the wilds, while at the same time giving Goldberg a chance to expand into areas scriptwriters can’t. (Does anyone really think any spy ever knew or used all the things Westen describes?) Meaning, the spy tidbits have to come quickly and not take up too much screen time on TV, but Goldberg’s monologues allow us to hear Michael’s thoughts and reactions to what is happening around him. I thought this was a bit more memorable in The Fix where Westen admitted feelings about Fi we can only infer from their on-screen chemistry. But there are choice scenes in End Game, notably the epilogue where Michael has to endure bonding time with Mom and a New Age therapist. A moment when Michael begins musing about his circumstances saying “When you’re no longer a spy . . .”

Speaking of Fi, I think she’s the least tapped resource on Burn Notice, whether in the scripts or novels. True, her particular skill set, and her lust to employ it, don’t require a lot of exposition. She is in the bind of many a TV heroine, trapped in a “will they, won’t they” realm that keeps her on the romantic hook—spiced with a major dose of attitude. Still, in End Game, she’s a conscience for Michael, a mix of a woman who’s most comfortable when she gets a chance to shoot someone while chiding Michael about his inability to be responsive to simple human courtesy. It’s Sam Axe that really thrives as a supporting character in the Goldberg books. He’s a sly con, a deft handler of all the gadgets, a quick analyzer of situations, almost a one-man IMF team. In the novels, we can see what he’s doing to investigate things we rarely see onscreen where, normally, we only hear his telling Michael what he’s found out, not how he found out. This is due, in large part, to Goldberg’s admitted love for the character and the actor who plays him, Bruce Campbell. (For more on this point, see my interview, “Having A Burn Notice Jones This Week? Tod Goldberg Has the Fix for You” posted at

I admit, I think Goldberg was more successful bringing the Burn Notice formula to life in his first book. It seemed richer, full of more surprises. The second-time around, I was more aware this was essentially another episode in the life of Westen and Co. that, because of the limitations of tie-in projects, couldn’t move the overall story arc of the series forward. In tie-in novels, by definition, we can’t see any character development or relationship changes. So, like many of the episodes from the last season, the “Burn Notice” storyline is only in the background. What we get is the Westen team taking on a gang war in Florida after the family of Paolo Fornelli, Helmsman for a yacht in the Hurricane Cup, are kidnapped. Would the super-rich stoop so low as to rig a winner-takes-all race? Of course they would. But there’s more to the plot than boat racing. But this is no place for spoilers. I suppose one disappointment is the final scene when Michael and Fi are out at sea, going to the very boundaries of Michael’s official confinement. While zigzagging around on the water, they’re more observers of the action than full-fledged participants, mainly checking out the fruits of their elaborate sting operation. Or maybe I’m just too used to agents sparring with the villain up to the very last minute, then heroically leaping into the icy waters below.

In spite of these quibbles, there’s no denying that it’s all here, the banter, the wry humor, Fi’s beloved explosions. Of course, explosions--the book begins with Michael driving past an exploding yacht, and he keeps moving so no one will think he had something to do with it. He will, of course. And so will you—if you’re a Burn Notice fan, this is one you won’t want to miss. If you’re not already a fan of the show, well, shame on you, and check this book out after spending a few happy hours with the DVDs of Seasons 1 and 2. Then The End Game will be waiting for you.

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Ordering information for Burn Notice: The End Game can be found at: