****Minute Zero

Africa, Sunset

(photo: Andrew Moore, creative commons license)

By Todd Moss – If you missed Todd Moss’s dramatic 2013 debut with The Golden Hour, catch up with his protagonist Judd Ryker in his second thriller set in an unstable Africa, the recently released Minute Zero for more political chicanery, assassination, theft and corruption at the most brazen level.

Ryker is an academic working in the uneasy surroundings of the U.S. State Department. The careerists don’t trust him, his brief—as head of the department’s new Crisis Reaction Unit—puts him outside the bureaucracy’s normal chain of command, and in many ways he’s in over his head. What landed him there was his theory that in every international crisis there is a short period—the golden hour—in which events can be successfully directed toward a positive conclusion. Once a situation settles, that opportunity is lost.

This novel elaborates that idea, with the proposition that at times of extreme national disruption, there is an even briefer period of breakdown, when outcomes are uncertain and dramatic change is possible. For U.S. diplomats, Ryker counsels, that “zero minute” offers a unique opportunity.

Moss places this thriller in Zimbabwe, under the long-time leadership of fictional President Winston Tinotenda, a man in his 90s (clearly modeled on IRL president Robert Mugabe), aided by his considerably younger national security advisor, General Simba Chimurenga. This pair did not retain power for decades without a hefty dose of corruption, violence, and heavy-handed political tactics. Now the country faces an election pitting Tinotenda against a formidable challenger, a woman lawyer, Gugu Mutonga.

In this situation, U.S. goals are clear and limited, says the State Department’s Africa lead, Bill Rogerson: a safe, peaceful vote and stability into the post-election period, translated as “no bodies in the streets.” Tinotenda’s hold on the office look like a certainty, but Mutonga has strong support among the country’s youth and in its southern region, and Ryker isn’t so sure the president can hold on. Disruption is in the air.

The Secretary of State asks Ryker to fly to Zimbabwe and demonstrate definitively that his crisis reaction analytics can work. But Rogerson considers Ryker a thorn in his side and is anxious to expel him from the body diplomatique. To thwart Ryker’s efforts, Rogerson colludes with the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe—a rather dim political appointee counting the minutes until he can take up a new posting in London. Ryker’s wife Jessica is an agronomist working on African water purification projects. She provides helpful counsel to him as he negotiates these treacherous bureaucratic waters. Only over time does the reader begin to suspect Jessica has her own dangerous agenda.

The political and diplomatic chess game Ryker undertakes to protect American interests and the integrity of the vote is just as cutthroat as an assassination and its outcome can be just as fatal (at least to careers).

Moss is uniquely qualified to write his thrillers, having been the deputy assistant secretary of state covering 16 countries in West Africa. Currently, he’s chief operating officer and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C. He’s also the author of four nonfiction books on international economic affairs and has taught at Georgetown University and the London School of Economics. Luckily for his readers, in addition to his solid background and experience, he knows how to tell a compelling story!