Chain Your Muse

Matthew Palmer's Enemy of the Good explores 'values complexity' even as it provides the reader with an entertaining page-turner.I heard this gem last week, sound advice to anyone who bleeds ink: I keep my muse on a chain. And when I get 20 minutes I yank on the chain and say, ‘C’mon, muse.’

The man with the chain is Matthew Palmer, novelist and Foreign Service Officer, speaking at the American Foreign Service Association to promote his fourth book, Enemy of the Good.

His remarks at our diplomatic safe haven in Foggy Bottom were brief, funny, and informative. Best of all, they left me reassured that somebody’s out there telling the American people what it is we diplomats do for our country.

While his main objective as an author is to entertain, Palmer’s latest thriller also carries lessons in what he calls ‘values complexity.’ To paraphrase, the American diplomat’s job is more difficult for the fact that we stand for everything, that we must choose between morality and compromise, that the U.S. interest in, say, an airbase in Kyrgyzstan, may compel our diplomats to look past the human rights abuses of the local regime.

This isn’t cynical. It’s the job. We stand for a lot of things that get in the way of the other things we stand for.

Look inside Palmer’s work to see how it plays out. He’s an engaging writer and an entertaining speaker, happy to dole out tips when asked. On how he manages to write convincing female characters, he takes a page from George R.R. Martin: ‘I’ve always thought of women as people.’

Ask him why Enemy of the Good is dedicated to his wife.

Palmer doesn’t write to preach but to entertain. He takes Le Carre’s view that the reader doesn’t want reality but a facsimile of reality. This he gives. He gives the reader a story they care about not because of plot but because they care about the characters.

Writers, travelers, expats, overworked people everywhere who fancy themselves scribblers can sit up straight and get to work wherever they are, even in the last row of a 15-hour flight to Bishkek, toilets running over and two heavies parked beside them: I keep my muse on a chain. And when I get 20 minutes I yank on the chain and say, ‘C’mon, muse.’

Writing isn’t precious. Writing is writing. Chain your muse.

Murder and the Father of American Diplomacy

We all know Ben Franklin as one of the nation’s earliest Renaissance Men: scientist, printer, writer, businessman, scholar, politician, diplomat. Fireman. In David R. Andresen’s short mystery Murder in a Blue Moon Ben takes a break from his more gentlemanly pursuits, such as chess, to solve a serial murder in Philadelphia.

It’s fall of 1752, the American Experiment still a quarter century from Independence. Constable Geoffrey Hunter turns to his friend over glasses of Madeira to mull the facts of a case involving prostitutes with broken necks and surprised looks on their faces.

The short mystery develops quickly, clues tying the mystery together sparse, the time between each murder so great they go undetected for nearly a decade. The narrative style befits the times. We take our modern P.I. and dial the voice back to the 18th Century. Andresen succeeds at doing this without slowing the yarn or making it stumble:

I’m not known for being a quiet man, but much of my work required discretion and the rest was so much a simple litany of common greed, sin, and sheer folly that I found it best to spare him and me the despair and disgust so many of my duties as Constable entailed.

When our good Constable does unburden his heart of the details of his case,  it requires the author of Poor Richard’s Almanac to put this puzzle together.

An imaginative slice of early American life that’s a tad more lurid than average, Murder in a Blue Moon is a quick, entertaining read.

Foreign Service Blogs (II)

Discovering more blogs kept by Foreign Service Officers, old and new, from DC to Bucharest, from cat-lovers to chess masters.

Cross Words

Among the most interesting aspects of this blog is the lack of a lapel pin declaring the author a Foreign Service Officer. Instead we see a chess enthusiast and writer of fantasy and science fiction. Currently set in Nassau, Bahamas. What’s it like to raise talented musicians as part of your Foreign Service family? Ted has answers.

Notes From Post

Posts from one of our most recently sworn-in U.S. diplomats covering the beginning of A-100 training in Fall 2016 through Flag Day and Swearing-In last month. Come October—after Portuguese and Consular training—the posts here will shift focus from D.C. to Praia, Cape Verde.

Rob Joswiak: American, Veteran, Diplomat

Another from the same class, same timeline, and similar prognosis—soon to be proficient in Portuguese and posting from Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Sadie Abroad

Posting from Beirut for now; after the summer on to studying Bahasa Indonesia before taking up an assignment at the U.S. Consulate in Surabaya, Indonesia.

Tabbies in Tow

In their own words: A couple and their tabbies give up the comforts of everyday life to move into the unknown world of life in the Foreign Service, presently in Bucharest, Romania.

Previous posts in this series, by Foreign Service Officers and about the Foreign Service.

Foreign Service Readings

Continuing a short list of blogs and independent websites offering an insider’s view of U.S. diplomacy steeped in experience. Not  officialdom. I previously posted this Foreign Service blog list.

Opinionated and often edgy, DiploPundit has no official connection to the U.S. Department of State. It wades into leadership issues, Foreign Service realities, international current events, and other developments in the foreign affairs community. Updated daily the blog is the brainchild of Domani Spero, an obsessive compulsive observer, diplomatic watcher, and opinionator who monitors the goings on at ‘Foggy-Bottom’ and the ‘worldwide available’ universe—from Albania to Zimbabwe.  Continue reading Foreign Service Readings

The Foreign Service v Zach Galifianakis

The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) included this discussion of  Two Pumps for the Body Man in their new Digital Exclusives series. Unlike the great Between Two Ferns, the AFSA studio had only one bamboo to offer. Lean budget times, I guess.

AFSA writes:

Foreign Service Officer Ben East brings to the table a satirical look at diplomatic service in the Middle East in his neo-noir, Two Pumps for the Body Man. The novel follows Jeff Mutton, a diplomatic security agent who must deal with an outlandish boss, hidden government agendas, deadly threats, and a unique personal affliction. East also takes time to explain how parts of the book were heavily informed by his own harrowing experience in Saudi Arabia as his consulate was attacked.

December 06, 2004

Remembering those we lost. Remembering those who survived. Remembering this awful day and its  protracted aftermath.


It’s the aftermath that sticks most. The long period that stretched through weeks when our broken mission pulled itself together again. We pulled ourselves up from piles of ash and dust; from the pulverized concrete and glass shattered by bullets fired into the chancery; from the smoldering heap of a Marine house burned to the ground.

I remember the rifles mounted on alien tripods behind sandbags and concertina wire that popped up around the compound with the arrival of a Marine detachment. I remember the flickering lights along darkened corridors that cast jittery shadows for weeks as we made our way through routine in an effort to restore ourselves to normal.

I came upon this essay about the day itself in the third edition of Inside a U.S. Embassy (2011).  I don’t need to read to remember, or to know that every day our diplomats put their lives on the line. Some wear a bigger target on their backs than others; some for longer periods. But we all serve in harm’s way, at some point.


Two more pieces worth reading. Two Pumps for the Body Man is a satire about diplomatic life on the front line of the war on terror.


Shattered Glass–The Story of a Marine Embassy Guard is non-fiction by the Marine standing Post as the attackers breached our gate.

GM Shattered Glass

For those of you who continue to walk this overlooked beat: we remember.

Avery Dick Disappoints

dick-liberiaI had high hopes for the Avery Dick series. Diplomatic Security (DS) Agents have some of the most colorful stories in the Foreign Service trade. They walk like cops. They talk like cops. They’re security professionals steeped the gritty detail of protective service. Their beat is peculiar: sniff out bombs and throw up barricades; investigate treason and bust international scofflaws; safeguard state secrets and shuttle around with high-flying diplomats, foreign and domestic.*

That’s why I figured Dick Does Liberia for a blast: a retired DS agent narrates his return to war-torn West Africa on a detail cloaked in mystery. A glance at the chapters suggests a writer in control of his art, making the most of an unserious world: “Dankest Africa”; “Mumbo Jumbo”; “Mercy! Beaucoup”; “Juju Jamboree.” The list is long.

Parts of it deliver: “I awakened several times by what I first thought were the sounds of gunshots very close by. I reflexively took defensive action by pulling my sheet over my head and praying that it was only a neighbor being attacked…” This is the wry, self-deprecating humor we expect of a lawman in control of his situation. A little clumsy in delivery, but sardonic to the core.

It gets better: “In the morning, I identified the attackers—pear-sized almond fruits that had fallen from the trees onto the metal roof above my bed.” He calls it an “an obvious gangbang by a bunch of out-of-control nuts.”

More than a hint at self-awareness—it’s a dangerous, dirty world, but not as dangerous and dirty as it may seem. In fact if you can’t laugh at yourself and all that threatens you, stay at home and watch the tube.

I hoped such prose would fill the pages. It wasn’t to be.

Unfortunately by this point our dick Avery Dick had already checked brevity with his piece at the embassy gate, failing to bring on the banter. Much of the proceedings are delivered as monologue, reading more like the minutes of a jaded Country Team briefing or grudging welcome cable/post report than the street tough chatter between cops, the witty ripostes between men of the badge.

Full Review

2 Pumps hi rezReaders interested in a Diplomatic Security tale set on the front line of the war on terror can take a look at Two Pumps for the Body Man.

Jeff Mutton walks the diplomatic beat protecting American officials in Saudi Arabia. An expert with guns and knives, grenades and rockets, he’s survived assaults and sieges, stabbings and chokeholds, car bombs, carjackings, criminal hits, and countless other enemy threats. But instinct tells Mutton the menace he now faces dwarfs all these killers combined. The fool!—his foot fetish has him in hot water again.

Part soft-boiled noir, part literary satire, Two Pumps for the Body Man is an unserious look at a serious situation, a grim reminder that no matter how high the barricade, how sharp the razor wire, there is no front line to the War on Terror. And the enemy is everywhere, even within.

Now available from New Pulp Press through AmazonBarnes and Noble, and elsewhere.

Not Graham Greene

havanaAmazon asked me if my novel, Two Pumps for the Body Man, met my expectations. “Well, the author’s no Graham Greene,” I say. “Please send me some of that.”

Why should I (or anyone) read a story about a foot-fetishist diplomat doing time in Saudi Arabia when I (or anyone) could be reading about a vacuum cleaner salesman making bank in Cuba?

But then a friend* posted her own review of Two Pumps and made me realize there’s more to the story. What began with a desire only to write with as much irony as possible—should my protagonist be a prude in Bangkok or a perv in Saudi Arabia?—in the end may contribute to current political dialogue.

Two Pumps for the Body Man is a timely read given all the talk in the political campaigns of Benghazi and What Really Happened.

This book fictionalizes a consular attack that came before Benghazi and demonstrates that what really happened isn’t always clear, even to the people who were there.

The troubled relationships among truth, duty, and accountability and the tensions between reasonable precautions vs racism, and real vs inflated risks are all on display in this novel that explores the personal and professional lives of a U.S. consulate staff in a Middle Eastern kingdom just before and after the traumatic event.

Full review

“You’ll want to read the fast-paced ending at least twice.”

(*an unpretentiously literate one)

Cover Story

To my colleagues in the foreign affairs community, known and unknown, I regret that the artwork of my novel about your service has misrepresented the truth.

“BOO-ring,” LousyBookCoversDotCom hooted. “Showing you just how dramatic diplomacy can be.”

2 Pumps hi rez
The offending cover.

What an insult my cover must seem to those of us who serve our country. What an insult to those who’ve worked in places of difficulty, chaos, and danger. Ankara. Sana’a. Jeddah. Karachi. Peshawar. All of the scores of cities where our missions have come under attack in the last twenty years alone.


I did not mean to bury the drama of your work two decades ago in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, or longer ago in Beirut and Tehran. And I apologize now for misrepresenting the drama of our profession.

To those who’ve worn flak jackets and boarded helos and fully-armored vehicles to get to work, and those with a Sig on the hip and a rack full of Colts ready to hand. To those of us who’ve installed barricades and jersey barriers and other deterrents against protestors and terrorists and zealots seeking targets for their hatred. To those of you who presently stand upon the ramparts in crisis cities around the world, risking ruined marriages and happy homes in dedicated service to America: sorry to have let you all down.

My cover, a reflective skyscraper façade reaching toward a higher, blind authority, stamped to denote the hostile territory within Saudi Arabia, just cannot convey the drama of life on the front line of the war on terror. The effort missed its mark on the unimaginative.

I am sorry.

credit: lousybookcoversdotcom
credit: lousybookcoversdotcom

Certainly, it’s true there are some among us for whom the life is BOO-ring. Some do pass dreary hours as visa stampers and grommet punchers. But even these jobs are done behind explosion resistant glass for a reason. Even these jobs—eye-to-eye with deceit and terror on the front line of one crisis or another—provide more drama in a two-year tour than any lifetime spent as a book cover critic, peddling his services over the Internet.

So, while I regret the lacking drama on the surface of my book, I am grateful for the drama that lies beneath, and for the profession that gives us all a taste of it—more often than not unrecognized—in service to our country.

A Wry Ode to Clusterf***ing

Joyless House posted this generous review of Two Pumps for the Body Man. See what else they’re reviewing with a click on the image.

“…Two Pumps is a page-turner, baby, and it takes some real balls to satirize the great Christian crusade of our times.”


Two Pumps is set in the Royal Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the action centers around a ragtag crew of Americans waging the War On Terror in the Godforsaken desert. Oh boy, Mr. East, those are some shark-infested waters!

At worst, we might have ended up with a typically glib, macho spy-thriller violence party. A lot of ruggedly-handsome American boys curb stomping swarthy Middle-Easterners. Luckily, Mr. East’s novel is informed by his time spent in the Peace Corps, teaching in Africa and Paraguay and a State Department stint in the Kingdom itself. Two Pumps ends up being a wry ode to the cluster-f*** of confusion that is the WOT. How do you wage a war on terror, anyway? East understands that this is a question without an answer. And he understands the evil of those who build violent careers on lies, vagaries and non-answers.

East avoids offering a straight-up political polemic, though the administration in question is taken to task. We are treated to cartoonish cameos by G-dub’ya and Dick Cheney, who are, after all, more unbelievable than any fiction. The pace is fast. Some of the side characters are not drawn very deeply. But Two Pumps is a page-turner, baby, and it takes some real balls to satirize the great Christian crusade of our times. Bravo, I say. Truth is stranger than fiction. That’s why we need good fiction writers; because if you simply tell people the truth, they’ll take you for a liar every time.