Sunday, October 19, 2008

Review - The Whole Truth and Nothing To Lose

David Baldacci is a reliable thriller writer, mainly in the area of politics (at least in those books of his I've read). His strengths are in dense plotting, as the action tends to move quickly from scene to scene, not getting hung up on lengthy exposition or scene description or character development. He writes "popcorn" novels, ones that can be read quickly and provide visceral enjoyment. From what I've read, his quality seem to sustain itself in a way that David Morrell and Jonathan Kellerman have had trouble doing lately.

These virtues are in evidence in what is billed as "his first international thriller," The Whole Truth (2008). The main character, Shaw (no first name, something that is supposed to be taken as significant), is the typical physical and mental superman, with unique skills that make him invaluable to a secret crime-fighting organization. TWT is designed around the idea that Shaw's falling in love transforms him in ways that will presumably be interesting to the reader, so we're not just following a complex series of international machinations, but the flowering of a man's closed-off soul.

And none of the "soul" stuff is all that fascinating. You may be affected, a little, by his personal travails, but there is not enough depth there to make you care about this cipher of a man. Shaw is just not a character who grabbed me, though I reserve the right to modify that judgment if he becomes the focus of a series, as seems likely.

The rest of the book is fine, however, if not particularly memorable. You'll be buoyed along on the usual fast-moving plot, and the geopolitical nature of it is realistic, if somewhat underdeveloped for my taste (though events can conspire to make dramatic effects banal, even risible; see if you can work up horror over $130 per barrel oil, which you're supposed to see as a representation of world chaos). You'll move from page to page, you'll want to see how it turns out, and there are enough surprises to make it interesting, though the denouement is pretty much a foregone conclusion.

If the character of Shaw seems familiar other than expressing some clear lineage to James Bond, it is that he resembles Lee Child's Jack Reacher. A strong, powerful man who rights wrongs where he finds them, Reacher is one of the more compelling figures in modern pop fiction. He owns nothing but the clothes on his back, and travels where he wants to, showing no particular ties to anything. For Reacher, situations are morally clear and generally yield to some kind of violence.

That doesn't sound promising to many readers, I'm sure, but Child usually does a good job of justifying Reacher's actions, well enough so that you tend to see him as an outsider who can cut through red tape to do good, not as a vigilante who works outside the law to get what he wants. What is ingenious here is that Reacher never profits from his activities, but just moves on down the road to the next situation that he will (reluctantly) handle.

And that's why book 12 in this series, Nothing To Lose (2008), is a bit disappointing. Reacher comes across a town that treats him badly, and he decides to investigate no matter the cost. Child does find some plot contrivances that justify Reacher's actions, and he works with a policewoman from a neighboring town to provide further verification that these actions are "right," but it just didn't seem sufficient to explain why Reacher doesn't just keep moving down the road.

Now, Child doesn't seem capable of writing a truly awful book, so there is plenty of compelling description and action, and it's still a pretty good read. But it's a relatively minor entry in the series, not one I'd recommend starting with, and, obviously, I hope that the next Reacher novel gets this character back on track.

In summary, neither one of these books is a waste of time, but each has flaws that might provide fatal to any particular reader, depending on taste. Baldacci and Child have done better, and one can only hope that they will do so again.

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