Review: Empire of Lies by Andrew Klavan

Jason Harrow is a Christian conservative, successful in business, happily married with beautiful children. He wasn’t always that way. In his younger days, he spent quite a lot of time doing drugs and engaging in S&M and other wild sexual practices. Sick of the nihilism, selfishness, and self-destruction of the hedonist lifestyle, he found God and found happiness.

A cry for help from a past girlfriend takes him away from his family and his stable life, back into his old world. His ex’s daughter, possibly his, is in trouble. He decides to do what he can to help, and in the process uncovers dangers much more dire than the problems of a wayward teenage girl–dangers that could result in the mass slaughter of innocents and repercussions far beyond.

It’s my understanding that Empire of Lies is Andrew Klavan’s first overtly political novel, and it reads like a coming-out event for the author (who now writes conservative political commentary for Pajamas Media and other outlets). It comes across like he’s been bottled up for a long time and has a lot to get off his chest, which no doubt is the case.

The result is an oddity, although a very compelling one. While clearly in favor of conservatism and Christianity, Klavan is much too talented to keep it that simple. Jason Harrow returns to his old stomping grounds as a quite believable combination of outsider, elder statesman, and very tempted human being. He’s got a rampaging libido that’s hard for him to keep in check even though losing control of it might cost him everything he holds dear in exchange for a few moments of pleasure. His values guide him to some extent, but they don’t provide him with easy answers or any answers at all sometimes. He can be holier-than-thou. He can be weak, and often is.

While a pro-Christian, pro-conservative book, don’t expect to find this one at Zondervan. It will not be confused with Christian fiction. I will not be recommending it to my deeply religious mother. Klavan does not flinch in describing sixteen-year-olds offering to trade blowjobs for favors, the male sex drive, and violence aplenty, all with more profanity than some boot camps. Jason Harrow goes to the gutter–a tempting, enticing gutter–and the gutter isn’t soft-pedaled.

On a larger scale, Klavan portrays the West as dying from a thousand injuries, some of them tiny cuts, some of them gaping wounds like the one at the heart of New York City’s financial district. A West so open-minded that, as the old joke goes, its brains have fallen out, allowing its enemies to damage it from both within and without. He makes a strong and often realistic case for this portrayal, although his case is a bit undercut by hyperbole in a couple of spots–while attempting to avoid spoilers, I’ll say that Hollywood hasn’t gone as far yet as it does in this novel and I don’t think it will.

What struck me while reading Empire of Lies was how audacious it seemed, and then I wondered why I thought it was so audacious. Certainly, right-of-center perspectives are not rare in crime fiction or thrillers. These literary cousins have embraced a notably wide political spectrum over the years–a strength, I think.

I think perhaps the audacity was in having a religious Christian operating in the universe Jason Harrow operates in, in a book that is pro-Christian. An anti-Christian book with the same character would have reveled in his failings and occasional hypocrisy. An ordinary pro-Christian book would have lacked the graphic descriptions and the moral ambiguity. I don’t know that I’m well read enough to state this outright, but I think Klavan may have done something quite innovative here by taking a Christian-lit type lead, dirtying his background, upping his weaknesses, and throwing him into an ugly, ugly sewer, with an ending that doesn’t quite put a bow on things.

I wrote several paragraphs earlier in this rambling review that Empire of Lies reads like Klavan had a lot to get off his chest. That’s a weakness, in an otherwise thrilling novel. The book is heavier-handed than it needs to be, with too many cases of telling rather than showing. We are told (right at the beginning!) that Jason Harrow is a conservative Christian, when we could have just been shown. As also mentioned earlier, a Hollywood moment is just a bit too over the top to be believed. Empire could have easily been dialed down a notch or two, and gotten Klavan’s points across just as well and likely better. The book is often not an ideological sledgehammer, so when those hammer blows hit, they’re jarring. They didn’t need to be, and Empire of Lies would have been a stronger novel if they weren’t.

If you’re sympathetic to Klavan’s worldview or capable of putting aside political differences when reading a novel, you’ll likely enjoy the hell out of Empire of Lies. If you’re a committed Leftist or squeamish about politics in your fiction, you probably won’t, but may want to check it out anyway as a unique approach to the crime and thriller genres.