A Perfectly Timed New Spy Thriller

Peter Eisner

What happens when a battle-tested undercover operative comes back from Afghanistan? Sure, he can go home again. But in Down Range, a new novel by Taylor Moore, a retired U.S. intelligence officer, there is no escape from the real world of corruption, violence, and death.

Down Range is the debut installment of a series of action thrillers focusing on Garrett Kohl, undercover in Afghanistan. At the outset, Kohl, on assignment with the Drug Enforcement Administration, is pinned down and alone on a surveillance mission in the Afghan hills. He has some quick thinking to do: he is powerless when he stumbles upon a civilian massacre by black-clad marauders, possibly Taliban, possibly opium traffickers, or both; the rules of engagement are to avoid contact unless attacked, and engagement would be suicide. But when he spots a young Afghan trying to escape, he makes a decision that could jeopardize his future. He rescues the survivor and hustles him to safety. Kohl is sent stateside with the young Afghani, who the CIA has plans for, and to decompress himself. Back home in the Texas panhandle, Kohl quickly must apply the same lessons he learned in Afghanistan: the righteous choice means you sometimes have to break the rules.

For espionage aficionados, Down Range has plenty of battlefield tradecraft and CIA intrigue. But Moore’s story is bigger: It bridges themes of corporate greed and big oil, drug traffickers, compromised businessmen and officials. The protagonist knows failure and regret, but faced with choices of good and evil, he’s looking for the decency that exists deep in the land where he was born. Kohl, the protagonist, is part Native American and his family has lived in Texas horse country for generations.

The rule for authors is to write what you know. After growing up on a farm near Houston, with stints overseas and in Washington, Taylor Moore has returned to Texas, where he now lives with his family and the bulk of the story is set. Moore was an analyst and operations officer at the CIA and also worked at the Defense Department in security cooperation and force protection.

Unlike his protagonist, Moore was not in the DEA. “I had worked counter-narcotics to a degree, but it’s a very different role,” Moore said in a Zoom interview from Amarillo. On one level, the book shows the different operational goals of intelligence agencies—national, state and local—goals that often collide.

“I put Garrett in this difficult situation, and it’s what I saw as an Intel guy, looking at the FBI that we worked with. They’re law enforcement, we are Intel; our job is to steal secrets, theirs is to make arrests.” The bureaucratic clash is not new, but in Moore’s hands the twists are intriguing.  “I put this law enforcement officer who has a simple value system of right and wrong, black and white…into the CIA’s gray world,” he said. “And yeah, that’s a very real thing. It happens all the time.”

Prescient Timing

Moore’s debut novel fits squarely into the realm of page-turners and sleepless nights. As the action revs up into full combat, there is something else going on here. The story cuts close to the bone, more timely than Moore could have imagined.

“I like to jokingly point out to people how, what a brilliant Intel guy I was to have my book come out August 3d, right on time for the withdrawal of U.S. forces [from Afghanistan].” Moore said. “The premise is that NATO has withdrawn, there’s a holdover element of special ops guys and spies that are kind of sticking around to make sure things are okay, but they’re not okay,” he said. “What we’re going to see is this lawlessness. The bottom line is it’s sad to see. And I don’t know what the answer is. We can’t stay there forever, but we can’t let it go back to the way it was pre 9/11. That’s not an option.”

Moore is quick to say that he focused on action and entertainment, leaving politics at the door. And yet, the story feels like it yearns for a return to basic American decency.  As always in the world of mystery thrillers, Garrett Kohl and those around him each have their flaws, burdens and sense of loss. But the orientation never wavers—restoring order and the rule of law is  central.

What better contemporary means of telling a morality play than to return from fighting an unending war abroad to that most classic of American venues—the Wild West. All the modern technology at hand—spy satellites, night vision goggles, precision weapons and aircraft—gives way to an old-fashioned battle on horseback in the panhandle.

In that sense, Moore is happy to say Down Range is an amalgam of genres.

“It’s a modern day Western mixed with a military operator-style thriller,” he said. The next book in the series is now in production and planned for 2022.  “It’s in that same vein,” Moore said. “It’s that same mix of spies and military, with it all within a Western, kind of like Hell or High Water meets Sicario; it puts those two worlds together.”

Home on the Range

Inevitably, Moore said, he is looking for universal themes blended with action, while still keeping his stories current and close to events. And by turning to his home in the West, he is looking for universals. His main character has made mistakes and seeks something better. Perhaps that is what the author is looking for, too.

 “It’s about redemption,” he says. “It’s about coming home. It’s about forgiveness. It’s making tough choices, it’s about making mistakes and getting past the mistakes of, of life. I want there to be a message of hope.”