A few years ago, it was Matthew Betley (Overwatch) and K.J. Howe (The Freedom Broker), then, last year, it was Jack Carr (The Terminal List) and David Ricciardi (Warning Light)—all top thriller writers who exploded onto the action scene with their hard-hitting debuts. In 2020, the next big debut is finally storming its way into bookstores, and if you’re a fan of Brad Taylor or Mark Greaney, then you do not want to miss Don Bentley’s Without Sanction.
Bentley—who spent a decade as an Army Apache helicopter pilot (he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal and the Air Medal with “V” device for valor while deployed in Afghanistan) before working as an FBI special agent focusing on foreign intelligence and counterintelligence—uses his first thriller to introduce readers to Matt Drake, a formidable new hero in the same vein as Jason Bourne and Mitch Rapp, who finds himself suddenly being pulled back into the dangerous world he’s tried so desperately to forget.
I was fortunate enough to read an early copy of Bentley’s novel last year, and the hype is for real—Without Sanction is a badass thriller from someone who knows the ins and outs of the space these characters operate in, and, for my money, it’s one of the best first books in a series that I’ve in the last decade.
While it doesn’t come out until March 3, 2020, Book Spy followers are getting an exclusive first look at the cover art and plot details for Without Sanction, plus a Q&A I did with author Don Bentley—who opens up about his own past and how here, in this book, his character gets to go back and try to right a wrong he’s struggled to live with. That thread parallels some of Bentley’s own feelings from an operation he was part of—one that, frankly, eagle-eyed readers will recognize from his description below.
After surviving a clandestine operation that went tragically wrong, Matt Drake escaped Syria with his life, but little else. Now, to save the life of another, he must return to Syria and confront his biggest failure in a debut thriller Lee Child calls “sensationally good.”
Defense Intelligence Agency operative Matt Drake broke a promise. A promise that cost three people their lives and crippled his best friend. Three months later, he’s paralyzed by survivor’s guilt and haunted by the memories of the fallen. Matt may have left Syria, but Syria hasn’t left him.
In the midst of his self-imposed exile, Matt is dragged back into the world of espionage and assets that he tried to forget. A Pakistani scientist working for an ISIS splinter cell has created a terrifying weapon of mass destruction. The scientist offers to defect with the weapon, but he trusts just one man to bring him out of Syria alive–Matt Drake.
TRBS: When did you know that you wanted to become a writer?
Bentley: “I’m a recovering electrical engineer, and during my senior year in college, I had to take a technical writing class. The first assignment was a softball—write about something you designed. While my classmates wrote about great engineery-type topics like integrated circuits and Boolean logic, I went with something a bit more nontraditional. I wrote about the sad excuse of a tree house my friends and I built in middle school. SPOILER ALERT—the tree house wasn’t exactly constructed to code. Anyone’s code. With no railings, a hefty slant to the floor, and support beams made of rotting two-by-fours, the tree house was a trip to the emergency room waiting to happen.
“Anyway, to my shock, and perhaps even horror, the professor decided to read my paper to the class. When he did, something magical happened—people laughed. At the funny parts even. After that, I knew my days as an engineer were numbered.”
TRBS: How did you come up with the plot idea for WITHOUT SANCTION?
Bentley: “Without Sanction came from a couple of different places, but my tour of duty as an Army Apache pilot in Afghanistan was the biggest catalyst. On June 28th, 2005 I was the air mission commander for an operation to rescue four SEALs pinned down on a mountaintop in Afghanistan. Over the course of that mission, one of the helicopters I was charged with protecting was shot down, and I couldn’t stop it. In the years since, I’ve had to find a way to live with what happened in Afghanistan, even though what I really wanted was a chance to go back. A chance to somehow atone for all the damage caused by that single moment in time. In Without Sanction, my protagonist, DIA operative Matt Drake, gets that chance.”
TRBS: What kind of research did you have to do before actually sitting down to write?
Bentley: “I read countless articles and books on the Assad regime, ISIS, and the brutal civil war still raging in Syria. I was also able to draw upon my experience as an FBI Special Agent. As an Agent, one of my jobs was to run and recruit what we called sources and what case officers in the intelligence community refer to as assets. The relationship between a handler and his asset is a complex, evolving thing. At its core, it’s a relationship based on conflict. A handler’s job is to convince an asset to provide information. Information that oftentimes puts the asset’s wellbeing at risk. In Without Sanction, the relationship between Matt Drake and his asset forms the centerpiece of the novel. The book was a blast to write, and I’m hoping it’s just as much fun to read!”
TRBS: Which authors influenced your own work, and who are some of your favorite writers?
Bentley: “I discovered the military thriller genre as a teenager when a friend loaned me his dog-eared copy of Hunt for the Red October, and for me, Tom Clancy will always be the gold standard. On a side note, even when I dreamed of one day writing a novel in the genre that Clancy helped to define, I never imagined that I’d have the fortune to meet, let alone work with, his fantastic editor, Tom Colgan. Collaborating with Tom on Without Sanction has been nothing less than a dream come true.
“After Clancy, I found Vince Flynn and Brad Thor and ingested their books. Next, it was Nelson DeMille and his witty protagonists. Then, I discovered Brad Taylor’s Pike Logan books and Mark Greaney’s Gray Man series.
“I learned things from each of the extraordinary writers I just listed, but for my money, Daniel Silva is the reigning king. His espionage thrillers have gripping action, engrossing plots, vivid descriptions, characters with depth, and even a goat who inspires fear in hitmen and spies alike! But it’s how Silva weaves these elements together that sends me back to his books for inspiration time and time again. He’s a true craftsman, equally at home wielding his prose with a painter’s brush or an assassin’s pistol. It’s my life’s goal to someday become a friend of Gabriel Allon!”
Don Bentley’s Without Sanction, the next can’t-miss debut, is scheduled for release on March 3, 2020, and is currently available for pre-order here or anywhere else books are sold. In the meantime, make sure to follow Betley on Twitter for more details.
Praised as “one of today’s finest book reviewers” by New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lynds, Ryan Steck (“The Godfather of the thriller genre” — Ben Coes) has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). Steck also works full-time as a freelance editor and pens a monthly thriller column for CrimeReads. For more information, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.