Before reading any of his books, I was all set to become a David Baldacci cheerleader. With twelve New York Times bestsellers to his name, 50 million books sold in 80 countries, plus glowing press and reader reviews, he seemed an ideal candidate for my pantheon of favourite authors. Then I started reading The Collectors
With a mixture of disappointment and disbelief, I ploughed through page after page, hoping that at some point it would turn into a thriller. But, far from the diamond-sharp dialogue and pacesetting plot I’d been expecting, the book turned out to be as thrilling as a damp dishcloth.
The main story surrounds an investigation by a group of conspiracy theorists into a death at the Library of Congress in Washington. Elsewhere, a gang of con-artists sets out to relieve a notorious mobster of his fortune. These plots intertwine and the rest of the book unravels the consequences.
So far, so good. But right from the start Baldacci’s clunky writing gets in the way of the story. In his world, people don’t just say things. They say them “bitterly”, “solemnly“, "eagerly", "breathlessly", or even "matter-of-factly". This outbreak of adverbs is profoundly annoying, but it’s by no means the only problem with The Collectors.
The paper-thin characters are a mixture of the unremarkable and the unbelievable. Baldacci may have intended con-artiste Annabelle Conroy to come across as a clever and classy broad with a will of steel and a heart of gold. But before too long, I was tiring of this James Bond in tights. The reader is meant to gasp in wonder at her skullduggery and subterfuge as she takes the mean and the greedy for a ride. But how can we admire a character whose actions lead to the innocent getting killed? Or are we supposed to dismiss these casualties as collateral damage?
Meanwhile, the group of conspiracy theorists, known as the Camel Club, owe more to Hanna-Barbera than to Hitchcock. They’re not so much amateur detectives as shamateur defectives. Led by Oliver Stone (I kid you not), these misfits bumble their way across Washington with all the finesse of a herd of elephants on roller skates. Especially irritating is Caleb Shaw, the wimpy librarian. Baldacci gets exactly no prizes for fishing him out from the dressing-up box of tired old stereotypes.
As for the mobster, Jerry Bagger, he’s an unbelievably stupid pantomime villain. Far from masterminding his way to owning a string of casinos, a dodgy character like this wouldn’t get past the doorman in my local supermarket.
With little of interest in terms of plot and character, the reader should at least have been able to admire the scenery. An attractively drawn map of Washington, D.C. on the first page suggests that this monumental city will play a significant part in the story. Yet, aside from passing references to the Mall and the White House, we might as well be in Grimsby. Even the magnificent Library of Congress, where much of the action (I use the word guardedly) takes place, is described in the most fleeting of terms.
Early on, we’re told that the Camel Club saved the world from Armageddon in a previous adventure. This incredible claim should have set alarm bells ringing, but I pressed on, expecting an eventual resolution to the story. But not in another book.
Baldacci couldn’t have been less subtle had he placed a photograph of a cash register on the final page, with a little banner declaring: "So long, suckers, see you in the sequel". It was an appropriately fraudulent end to a so-called thriller that delivered not so much a tightness in my chest as a lightness in my wallet. Baldacci is on record as saying that he strongly identifies with Annabelle Conroy. Having conned me out of my hard-earned cash, I can say (truthfully, angrily, bitterly, furiously) that he’s well on the way to emulating his heroine.
Perhaps I was just unlucky. Other reviewers have claimed that this isn’t Baldacci at his best, and it could be this wasn't the right place to start on his books. But it’s definitely the right place to stop. Rather than risk another mugging, I’ll be steering clear of this particular author. From now on, my bookshelf is a Baldacci-free zone.