The biographical notes in The Operators mention that author Barry Heard was conscripted in Australia’s first national service ballot and served in Vietnam as an infantryman and radio operator. His experiences both during and before that war have been chronicled in two memoirs – Well Done, Those Men and The View from Connor’s Hill. This is relevant only in that Heard clearly draws on this experience, the people he fought with and the connections that they maintained in the years following as inspiration for many of the characters in The Operators.
Wally Flanagan, a farmer in central Victoria, is planning the trip of a lifetime. He is off to Indonesia to witness the flowering of a plant that only blooms every thirty years. But once in Indonesia he is taken by a kidnapping ring, manages to escape and has to rely on the kindness of strangers. What the kidnappers fail to account for is Wally’s skill as an ex-soldier and his ability to call on his old army buddies to help him out.
Before this main story starts the reader is treated to a Prologue involving secret codes and urgent messages and, bizarrely, a short treatise entitled “An update on current fashion trends for today’s man” which is an anachronistic short entry about the development of “man-bags”. This expository section, following what feels like the start of a thriller, is the first inkling that Heard is trying to deliver a kind of comic caper with witty interludes. Unfortunately this technique does not work in the Prologue and continues to not work for similar sections inserted all the way through the narrative.
The Operators is a book that constantly tells rather than shows. This failing is obvious for the vaguely interesting, not particularly witty and tension killing factual interludes. But unfortunately it is also true of most of the narrative. As a result, while he manages to deliver a believable sense of place, Heard fails to develop any real tension. On top of this, the many complications are resolved so easily and matter-of-factly that the whole thing feels like an extended wish fulfilment.
Heard clearly knows how to wield the pen, and he has some real experience to bring to a work of fiction, particularly a thriller. But The Operators, draws too slavishly on that experience and so fails to thrill.