Monday, May 02, 2011

“Hell’s Corner” by David Baldacci (Macmillan)

Baldacci-HellsCornerUKThe Camel Club return, in their most difficult and confusing case, yet.

Oliver Stone – once the country’s most skilled assassin – stands in front of the White House, perhaps for the last time. The president has personally requested that Stone serve his country again on a high-risk, covert mission. Though he’s fought for decades to leave his past career behind, Stone has no choice but to say yes.

But Stone’s mission changes drastically before it even begins. It’s the night of a state dinner honouring the British prime minister. As he watches the prime minister’s motorcade leave the White House, a bomb is detonated in an apparent terrorist attack against both leaders. It’s in the chaotic aftermath that Stone takes on a new, more urgent assignment: find those responsible for the bombing.

Stone’s opponents are elusive, capable, and increasingly lethal. Worst of all, it seems that the park bombing may just have been the opening salvo in their plan. With nowhere else to turn, Stone enlists the help of the only people he knows he can trust: the Camel Club. Yet that may be a big mistake.

In the shadowy worlds of politics and intelligence, there is no one you can really trust. And Hell’s Corner truly lives up to its name. This may be Oliver Stone’s and the Camel Club’s last stand.

Out of all of Baldacci’s series, the Camel Club novels are by far my favourite: The motley band of sleuths and conspiracy theory junkies who have grown over the course of five novels into quite the diverse and capable band of crime solvers, complete with endearing quirks and a hard-nosed and noble former government assassin (who goes by the name ‘Oliver Stone’) as their nominative leader. With Hell’s Corner, Baldacci has written yet another fast-paced and enjoyable thriller, but also one that has a bit of a shaky start, not quite living up to its predecessor, Divine Justice.

Hell’s Corner is Lafayette Park on Pennsylvania Avenue, where the various US governmental jurisdictions overlap (FBI, Park Service, Secret Service, and so on), creating a nightmare of overlapping jurisdictions. After a bomb goes off on Hell’s Corner, an investigation into who the perpetrator is gets snarled among the crossed wires and red tape. After being called in over a different assignment altogether, Stone is re-tasked to join this investigation, from the White House’s perspective. It’s a position that carries plenty of clout, but also quite a few risks and resentments, and Stone’s unorthodox methods and well-documented disrespect for authority mean he will inevitably annoy at least a few of the by-the-book and uptight Federal employees he comes into contact with.

The characters that make up both the Camel Club and the wider cast of the novel are well rounded, and the Camel Club members return in their familiar ways – the bickering, the loyalty, the good-natured ribbing (between Reuben and Caleb, particularly). Stone’s nobility is laid on with a bit of a heavy hand this time around, which was noticeably absent in previous novels in the series. This wasn’t a bad thing per se, but at times it seemed slotted in at the end of chapters just to make the reader really aware of the fact that Oliver Stone is a noble and selfless character. His actions speak to this – there really wasn’t much need to repeat certain facts about Stone to get this impression across.

Mary Chapman, the MI6 agent who works alongside Stone is an interesting addition to the cast, and one who works well with Stone (a nice foil, in some ways), but her ‘British-isms’ come a little too frequently: just telling us she’s British is enough to make us believe it, the frequent use of “bloody” and “bloke” is unnecessary and ruins it, actually, as we don’t use it nearly as much as Chapman does, and people of her generation are just as likely to have been brought up watching plenty of American TV and movies. She came across a bit too uptight-British in their vocal mannerisms – not throughout the novel, but there was a noticeable chunk in the middle where the British-ness seemed ramped up to the max. (This is a very personal complaint about the novel, as I am always annoyed by this sort of thing, so don’t come away from this thinking Chapman’s a poor copy of Dick Van Dyke-esque English; also, in fairness to Baldacci, he writes better Brits than most other American thriller authors I’ve read.)

The themes running through the novel are mostly to do with the US government’s bureaucratic gridlock – the endless inter-agency competition and brinkmanship, as they jealously guard intelligence and information, keeping it from sister agencies they’re supposed to be working with, all in the name of grabbing the attention of Congress and the President – those effectively in charge of the purse-strings. As Stone’s investigation gets snarled up by the inter-agency rivalries, he turns to the Camel Club for help and outside advice (unrestricted by Beltway politics). As usual for the Camel Club series, loyalty and friendship are a big part of the story and also the interactions between Stone and his friends and companions, as they pull together to help each other and solve the crime or mystery in question. As mentioned earlier, there’s also a large dose of nobility in Stone himself.

There is no doubt that Baldacci’s gift for pacing remains entirely intact – each time I meant to pick up Hell’s Corner for just a couple of chapters before bed, I ended up blitzing through a good ten chapters (there are over a hundred in total), as each one was paced and plotted just right to keep you reading on and guessing what the outcome might be. There is a refreshingly ‘classic’ antagonist, too, as we move a little further away from the now-tired angle of American agents hunting down Middle Eastern terrorists. That being said, Stone and Chapman are really put through the wringer, as they begin to realise that there is a lot more going on, with a lot more players involved, than they originally thought. The second half of the novel is a real roller-coaster of conspiracy, intrigue and twists – it kept me guessing for a long time, and I usually spot these things early on.

Despite the solid pacing and interesting angle, however, I did find myself wanting a little more for the amount I was reading – certainly in the first third of the novel, in which not a whole lot happens, as Stone and company meet consistent dead ends and roadblocks set up by the various, vying Federal Agencies involved in the bomb investigation. There’s almost a painfully slow progression in the investigation, in discovering what’s actually going on, so I often found myself a little frustrated (true, this did make it slightly more believable, but it’s not what you look for in a thriller). The novel highlights the frustration that government officials and law enforcement must feel in their endless battle against terrorism – never having enough or all of the information, loads of guess-work and the potentially lethal pitfalls for errors.

The novel does, however, contain a couple of interesting twists and nicely-done reveals that kept me guessing for a very long time about what is actually going on. Ultimately, I can say that I enjoyed reading Hell’s Corner – it has most of the hallmarks of what makes Baldacci a great author, and one of the top in his field (there’s also a surprisingly high body-count). I just hope that, with an increase in output, he doesn’t suffer the reduction in quality that oh-so-clearly plagues James Patterson. (Long-time readers will remember that I had some issues with Baldacci’s Deliver Us From Evil, too.)

Not the author’s best work, Hell’s Corner is nonetheless recommended for fans of the series, and Baldacci retains his spot as one of my favourite thriller authors.

Series Chronology: The Camel Club (2005), The Collectors (2006), Stone Cold (2008), Divine Justice (2009), Hell’s Corner (2010)

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