Reviewed by Ian Lipke
In this current volume David Baldacci introduces a new character in the form of Atlee Pine, an FBI agent responsible for a geographic area that includes the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Pine’s twin sister Mercy disappeared on the night that a monstrous human being snatched her from her bed. She was just a child. Pine believes that she knows who was responsible, and opens the story with an interview in prison with a man named Daniel James Tor. However, she cannot spend her time finding information about her sister and her disappearance as the world has moved on and she has other crimes to solve. The death of a mule on the floor of the Grand Canyon with strange markings on its body requires immediate investigation. The plot takes over from there, while the mystery of Mercy lives on.
My immediate impression when I began reading this book is that there was not a great deal new in it. The hero wears a different hat and totes a badge but does pretty much what many of Baldacci’s characters have done on numerous occasions in a large number of books. I counted thirty before I gave up. A cursory glance reveals that the blurb on each cover differs only in particulars from book to book. Writing in general terms I find that the plots run along familiar lines, as if Baldacci has developed a recipe and strayed little from those proven ingredients. I find that novelists like John Grisham and Nora Roberts coast along similarly. This disappoints me.
In the book currently under discussion the story line is interesting enough. A plot of gigantic proportions is dribbled to us as the story unfolds. Just the right amount made known at the moment when suspense is high. Nobody ever said that Baldacci is a dreadful writer. He is not. His plots are slick, pace doesn’t let up, and events unfold in logical sequence. There is plenty of enjoyment for readers who want a bit of action in their diet. In this novel there is a feeble attempt at introducing a character that is different from the mould, but what you read of the character Atlee Pine in chapter one is not much different from the character at the end of the novel. There is a minor attempt at introducing romance but the author does not come into human feelings and relationships as, I suspect, it’s not an ingredient in his recipe.
What needs mention is Baldacci’s consistency in producing high quality work in book after book. This is very much the case with the current volume. The reader’s attention does not wane because the writer grasps what his readers want to see in one of his books, and he gives it to them every time. Nobody writes thirty-something books unless the readership is satisfied. No publisher turns a typescript into a commercial publication if the money is not there. While Atlee Pine might not be one of Baldacci’s great characters, readers can live with that because of the skilled presentation of the plot.
The villains are either nasty career oriented men or out and out villains. The hierarchy in the FBI come in for a drubbing, and I must admit that I wondered if this was because it has been the fashion among a number of writers of the past twenty or thirty years. The idea is certainly not original. A classic villain, Sung Nam Chung is a murderous scoundrel and meets his end in a scene that I found unrealistic. He exits too soon and too abruptly. One of the weaknesses in the book centres on characterization. When the hero needs to push the plot along, the author admits a new character with the necessary skill that the plot’s development needs. When a character is no longer needed, he disappears, as was the case with Sung Nam Chung. I need to qualify my view in the case of Pine’s secretary Blum, who, while she adds nothing original to the role, at least shows she has a sense of humour.
I found it a little courageous that an author would place the Canyon in peril and marvelled, as expected, at the means by which removal of the problem from the Canyon floor to the surface was manoeuvred. I’m afraid I cringed when the weakest of the trio in this part of the book went off the ledge but was rescued from unimaginable depths. That raises a concern for me. Not only will readers have guessed well in advance of the incident that such an episode would happen, but also they will wonder why the grandeur and beauty of the Grand Canyon (and the other canyons in this part of the world) is not revealed to any extent.
The book will never be one of the great classics of English literature; Baldacci will never win a Booker for his fiction. I suspect he knows this and has cut his cloth to match his talents. He can tell a tale that will make him a living. His readers will read what they expect him to give them. They will praise him and purchase his books. They will think a location inside the Grand Canyon as something mysterious and exotic and will tread every step that Atlee Pine takes through the rattlesnake country of this part of the USA.
A brisk read!
By David Baldacci