Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Writers of novels are driven by a whole variety of reasons that explain why they set their minds to devising plots and developing characters and so on. Some aim for glory and fame with the carefully contrived literary tale that plumbs the human condition to reveal something original about mankind and his life upon the planet. Others write a series of superficial tales exemplified by the Jack Reacher novels, which tell of an impossibly large, ex-Special Services hero who rights wrongs, while his huge frame finds a home on the movie screen in the person of diminutive Tom Cruise. (Steady! We’re talking fiction). Serial novelists come in more subtle disguises, at least when we’re talking about the way in which their novels are constructed, one to follow another, one after the other.
One such writer is David Baldacci whose latest thriller is due for publication. Special Agent Atlee Pine is the FBI agent who links one book with another in her pursuit of a lost sister. Those who have read Long Road to Mercy will know the details of the story at the point where A Minute to Midnight begins. Those who have not, have a pleasant read ahead of them.
With Baldacci I see an author who has considerable talents suitable for the writing game. He has a good memory of events, he has the ability to juggle events to make the greatest impact, he knows which events to hold back and which to let loose, he knows into which events he should slot Character A while using Character B for some alternative event. Finally, he can set a pace such that his events occur at speed or at gentle intervals.
The tales he tells follow this basic event-driven formula. Events and their appearance drive his novels. Empathy for his heroine Atlee Pine when she has been shot or blown-up in an explosion, may or may not be present, because it’s not important. Sorrow when an adult or a child is murdered? No, just report the event and move on. Think about a piece of music on a long tape. The sounds occur at whatever location Baldacci requires but his tape (book) will carry on as the tape continues to wind. The events will either never be heard of again or they will come at the order of the writer. Then when we’ve had enough excitement the story ends with a problem as yet unresolved but due for attention in the next volume.
Baldacci’s method is not to be criticised. It is successful if his goal is to make money or seek a temporary modicum of fame, or more broadly, if it is to give him the satisfaction he must be seeking for his labours. If the satisfaction is his, then that is his to enjoy. Writers, of much lesser quality than Baldacci, have been doing similar things for many years. Agatha Christie is a household name even now (although she has been dead for heaven knows how many years). Her stories are nothing more than events strung on an interminable string that lasts until a gentleman, as portly as the plot is slim, abruptly intervenes, brings the children together, tells them a complicated fairytale, including the name of the kid who put salt in the sugar bowl, and sends them all off to bed for the night.
Baldacci is able to achieve his goals while providing his readers with an exciting yarn that convinces them that they have indeed bought a good deal for their money. My role is to stand back and scrutinise a body of work and make a judgment about quality. I have to be judgmental. The only judicial remark I can make is that I began reading Baldacci’s book yesterday, I’ve gone with only a few hours of sleep, and I’ve finally finished the blessed thing. I have loved the experience so much I cannot wait much longer for the sequel.
By David Baldacci