Scavenger Hunt
Chad Boudreaux’s debut novel Scavenger Hunt; courtesy of PR by the Book

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Scavenger Hunt, Chad Boudreaux’s debut novel, demonstrates the absurdity and awfulness of the early aughts’ war on terror. The better the thriller, the clearer the reality: Since the start of Joe Biden’s presidency, the U.S. has pivoted from a terror war in the Middle East to a great powers competition, including, potentially, nuclear confrontation. That doesn’t mean U.S. troops have actually retreated from the global war on terror; they remain scattered throughout the Middle East. But that conflict is on a low simmer, rather than the rapid boil it reached before Biden.

Boudreaux’s skillful war-on-terror thriller, Scavenger Hunt, is immersed in the zeitgeist of that rapid boil. Published on Jan. 31, the novel chronicles the desperate survival struggle of Blake Hudson, a Justice Department lawyer caught up in an off-the-books anti-terror op that goes bad. Blake, like the book’s narrator, has no doubts about the necessity of the global war on terror, but, for those who believe its emblems, such as the Patriot Act, trashed the Bill of Rights, the gung-ho warrior on terror is not someone with whom they have much in common. The book shares the worldview of the anti-terror TV show 24, though with a sprinkling of legal doubts and reservations about U.S. special operations going too far.

Set contemporarily, the novel opens with a legal “catastrophe”: A judge has ruled that an individual held on terrorism charges may have “unmonitored” access to counsel. This mindset, in which the lawyer-client privilege should be ditched to suit the conflict’s convenience, offends lots of Americans. But it wouldn’t have in 2002. That was when Washington denizens first began bandying about terms such as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” i.e., torture, and the notion that the Bill of Rights should be more elastic under periods of duress. So Scavenger Hunt succeeds totally in bringing the spirit of that era back to life. It’s a spirit many Americans may prefer to forget, but it was real, as Boudreaux correctly reminds us, in a way that unintentionally reveals its datedness. “We’ve seen before where a terrorist’s lawyer acts as a liaison, a conduit of information between a detainee and his terrorist cell,” warns one character early on. This view would not go over so well today, when many people feel the war on terror’s infringements on civil liberties went too far.

Like many thrillers, this book severs the world into Good Guys and Bad Guys. It’s what keeps the pages turning. It’s even acknowledged in the text itself: “Any guilt borne by the casualties wrought by his hands had long ago been buried by the honor of his cause. He’d been programmed to think about the cause. Nothing else mattered. He knew that by exterminating the bad guys, he was protecting the good guys.” 

But what happens when one of those bad guys burrows deep into the counterterrorism apparatus? Well, then the good guys must run for their lives, as the novel shows.

This book’s milieu is mostly the Justice Department in D.C. Though it cuts to some exotic locales, D.C. remains central, and within it, the workings of government. At one point, the U.S. Attorney General meets with members of Congress to argue for more powers, as seemed to happen weekly after 9/11. “I’m here to ask Congress to pass emergency legislation to create a new legal construct for terrorism-related cases. The existing legal structure—composed of the federal criminal system and military tribunals—just doesn’t work,” the AG tells a legislative committee. These remarks enhance the post-9/11 atmosphere, in which actions at Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba showcased the loosening definition of torture that became part of mainstream news and culture.

The novel reveals a detailed grasp of anti-terror laws—after all, Boudreaux was a Justice Department attorney who was hired by the U.S. Attorney General the night before the Sept. 11 attacks—and the narrator’s low tolerance for people of the politically left persuasion. (After leaving the DOJ, Boudreaux served as deputy chief of staff for the Department of Homeland Security; currently he’s the chief legal officer of the country’s largest military shipbuilder.) In one scene, as senators discuss the Patriot Act, those more sensitive to protecting citizen’s rights are portrayed quite unsympathetically. Indeed, they “yammered away with their sophistry and word salads.” At times like this, the narrator seems to grind the George W. Bush administration’s ax against the objections of civil libertarians. But this does not happen often, for the simple reason that nonstop action occupies most of the book and the narrator.

This thriller presents an alternative history, in which there have been multiple massive terror attacks post-9/11, right up to the COVID-19 pandemic. In this way, Boudreaux renders his hard-line anti-terror views more contemporary and justifies the extreme solutions advanced. In light of these, however, and of the mayhem caused by continuing terrorism, most readers will doubtless be relieved to recall that, after all, 9/11 was just a one-off.

Scavenger Hunt by Chad Boudreaux was published via Morgan James Fiction on Jan. 31. Paperback, 296 pages.